My Grandmother’s Intentionality: Languaging and Living

Audre Lorde QuoteMy father’s mother is the only woman who I have ever called my grandmother. She passed away a few years ago but I think of her always and talk to her often in my dreams.  As I get older, I see the intentionality that guided her life in renewed ways.

My grandmother wasn’t someone who you could call talkative.  She said what she meant and meant what she said.  I don’t recall any moment in my life when I ever saw her get upset and say something that she regretted later.  If she called you out your name, then that was your deserved name and unless you made a character change, that was the name that stayed with you.  Words were not things you took lightly and they were not things you could take back.  This is how most black folk I am close to think. Language shapes you and everything around you; it must always be intentional and it always was for my grandmother.  It is such an anomaly as an academic where talk-talk-talking-nonstop is what folk do.  There’s lotsa talking in these spaces— the arrogance and psychoses of always dominating the space by runnin your mouf— but not a whole lot of thinking and listening.  At best, I am usually bored and, at worst, I am often offended.  Strangely enough, I have read scholarship for years that indicates that my grandmother’s working class roots and vocabulary are a detriment to my language skills and yet the intentionality of her ways with words is the only one based in any deeply philosophical thought that I can see and hear for miles around me, despite all this middle class social capital folk have.

My grandmother (center, in pearls) with her 15 children and 60+ grandchildren & greatgrandchidren

My grandmother (center, in pearls) with her 15 children and 60+ grandchildren & greatgrandchidren

I don’t have any memory of my grandfather, my grandmother’s husband, because he died when I was very young. My grandmother was in her early 50s and never dated again.  I never even sensed from her, the way I do with many of the women around me as a child and now, that she wished she had a man or was ever interested in a man’s help or nurture.  Male attention was never the center of her life nor did she think it should be central to any other woman’s life.  At 50, after birthing 15 children, she was still very fly, always looking at least 10-15 years younger, tall, slender but very curved, with skin so smooth it looked like she woke up wearing foundation.  Even when she wore the family picnic T-shirt at 70+ years old, she adorned herself with pearls and shoes to match. She was, quite simply, content with who and where she was.  It’s a feeling that I can’t quite describe but one that I just don’t sense from many folks.  Most people I see are always trying to climb higher, become famous/known/seen, get to a more prestigious university (or pretend that the place where they work is Hahvahd), buy more things, have more clout.  There was never a time when I felt my grandmother was looking for something, for someone, for some place else, as if something was missing inside of her.  My father and his 14 siblings have often talked about how she would get mad at them for just staring too long at the Sears catalog which she called a Wish Book, something that she considered very dangerous.  You didn’t worship things outside of yourself that way, especially if it was connected to whiteness.

My grandmother would never have called herself a black feminist or womanist, those are academic labels that wouldn’t have done much for her life.  But when I heard Audre Lorde say things like “Who I am is what fulfills me and what fulfills the vision I have of a world,” I could gather those words into my being because of my grandmother.  Why would I ever be desperate for an alternative role model when I can clearly see and value the blackness from which I already emanate?  For me, my grandmother is one of the most radical black women/black people/intellectuals I know.  She lived her life never wanting to be somewhere else, never wanting to be something else, never wanting to be with someone else, never aspiring to be a social climber and insomuch that those projects/desires are always dictated by whiteness, she lived a life few of us today seem able to even imagine, much less achieve.

August Beginnings & Back-to-School Bling

afroAs a little girl, I cut my mother’s hair once…when she was sleeping.  Not much, just a little trim, but not really having a conception of time, I imagine that I thought it would grow back right away.  Needless to say, that experiment was not appreciated so I turned my attention to my next, unsuspecting victim: my father.  At the time, my father had a very large afro.  If I said I would grease his scalp, he would pretty much let me do what I wanted with his hair.  While he was watching the game or something on television, I would grease his scalp and then braid his whole head of hair in tiny braids, put colorful barrettes on each end, then dress up my dolls and do their hair to match.  That could take the better half of an afternoon or evening (it was a slow graduation from two-strand twisting to three-strand braiding).  My father is also a pretty chill person (and pretty funny) so if he needed to go outside for something, he would go out, just like that, with a head full of barrettes— take out the trash, help the elderly couple down the street, go to the co’ner sto’, you name it.  I would often be by his side, excited for everyone to see my creation.  And I was always very encouraged by my audience who told me to keep doing that to my father’s hair because he was lookin realllll good; it never once occurred to me that them folks was teasing.  My father once took his license photo like that after I agreed to tone down some of the barrettes; it was just too time-consuming to undo all of the braids and pick out his afro.  Let me tell you, that license picture got a whole lot of views, it was like the 1970s version of going viral.  Again, I assumed it was my hairdressing talent that was so intriguing.  I smile when I think about it: all of these people who made sure to never squash who I was. I remember it as a community that always found humor and celebration in the everyday.  Though my father was haunted by the many demons that squashed the fullness of working-class/working-poor black men who had just come home from the army in the 70s, I always remember my father as a comrade in my aesthetic creations and I took full advantage of it.

Imagine this Jacket... with sequin&rhinestone roller skate emblems all over!

Imagine this Jacket… with sequin&rhinestone roller skate emblems all over! And pants to match!  Wowzers!

A close replica of my roller skates... just add more handmade pom poms!

A close replica of my roller skates… just add more homemade pom poms!

Every August, my father scraped together his money, took me back-to-school shopping, and pretty much let me run through Montgomery Ward and get whatever I wanted.  It was a dream come true.  Sometimes I could spend $50; in a really good fiscal year, it was $75.  My parents were divorced and not communicating with one another which, to my delight, meant that my mother could not interfere with my choices.  When you shop with my mother, it’s all about practicality (since this could very well be the only time in the year when we bought new clothes.)  For my mother, it’s all about: how long will it last, can it be let out when you grow more, what else does it match, is it comfortable, how do you wash it, can you wear it on a gym day, can you wear it when it gets cold out…. all that ol’ mundane stuff.  My father did not talk that way; he did not think he really knew what kind of clothes little girls wore so I took the opportunity to educate him myself.  On one occasion, that meant a very shiny, blue jacket with pants to match, covered in sequin-and-sparkle-speckled roller skates with tassels for buttons.  It was F-A-B-U-L-O-U-S and ON SALE!  Score!  My mother, on the other hand, was furious.  You can’t wear that to school… and… blah, blah, blah.  If I had been allowed, I would have worn that joint EVERYday.  To top it all off, this outfit matched my roller skates AND the pom poms on the toe!!!!  I mean, really, what more could you ask for?

Every August, like my teacher-colleagues everywhere, I turn my attention to back-to-school, no longer as a student but as a teacher. It’s all about syllabi, projects, and classroom assignments now.  When you walk into Staples these days, you just know who the teachers are and if you look at the supplies in their hands, baskets, or carts, you can tell which grades they teach too.  This August, I am remembering rituals at this time of new beginnings.  I am excited for the new classes I will teach, my new train/subway/commute route, my new colleagues, and all the new students who will walk through my classroom doors.  My collection of children’s books, many of which are oversized, fit on the floor-to-ceiling shelves in my new office. I have 6 feet of leftover space for new books or other collectibles (or transfers from home shelves teeming over) and a big comfortable chair.  I even found out that the modular shelving system comes with extra shelves when I need them (space like this a real rarity in New York City).  For me, this is all just F-A-B-U-L-O-U-S!  Another score!

In the past years, August would hit and it would just feel like doomsday: “the cotton is ready to be picked” is what I would OFTEN say….and I meant it too!  But this year, I get to savor the rituals, the excitement, and the newness in the air.  As a little girl, I marked all of that with a little bling.  Inspired by the adults from my childhood, I am re-realizing that new beginnings and the everyday should, indeed, be celebrated.

“You No Got Sense Wiseness”

Adinkra Symbol for "Wisdom Knot"

Adinkra “Wisdom Knot”

I often talk about the importance of common sense but that term doesn’t work for the kind of fierce Black Common Sense I have in mind.  I like the term I learned from Fela Kuti better: sense wiseness.  Just like Fela Kuti conveys in the song, black academics and professionals, especially graduate students, have very little sense wiseness after all of the studies and travels within the empire.  Wisdom is not the purview of books and Western schools.  Far too many of us see the world outside of academia as incompatible with the work we do inside of academia.  For sure, black masses are not welcomed into academia and that is no coincidence but, also, for sure, you better hold on to the sense wiseness of the black masses or you won’t survive academia.

When I think of sense wiseness, I think of my family members (who do not have college degrees… like Fela Kuti says, education and sense wiseness are often an inverse relationship).  Between sense wiseness and quick wit, couldn’t NObody get over.  My uncle, Uncle Bay, who passed away a few years ago now, was fierce, even when cancer was ravaging his body.  My cousin, his son, tells a story of coming home from school one day really upset because a friend told the whole school my cousin’s secret.  My uncle quickly told my cousin to stop complaining and take full responsibility for his foolishness.  As my uncle told it: if you can’t keep your own secret, why you ’round here expecting somebody else to?  That makes a whole lotta sense to me, sense wiseness, actually.  I still don’t know what this secret was, some 25 years ago now, so apparently my cousin learned this lesson well.  Like in the case of my cousin, sense wiseness also means you listen to people who are telling you the right thing and who know what they are talking about: choose your teachers wisely and ignore fools.  I am often baffled as a teacher in this regard: stunned by how many of my students and colleagues listen to the dumbest people offer the dumbest advice about the discipline, who’s who, what’s what, and end up gettin NOwhere.  And since sense wiseness is not something you can read in a book, some folk will be like them old 7Up commercials: never had it, never will.  Like my Uncle Bay taught my cousin in high school (that my cousin, in turn, taught us): when you trust the wrong folk, something is wrong with YOU, not them, so get yourself right.  Friendship, trust, and the intimacies of your selfhood are not things to be given so freely.

africaStories of Uncle Bay’s sense wiseness abound in my family. Uncle Bay was a manager at the factory where my father worked when I was a small child (until the factory closed and moved overseas).  On one occasion, my father was apparently SHOWIN OUT (and let me attest to the fact that Pops can be good at THAT!) because his paycheck wasn’t accurate and significantly slighted.  When my father’s anger didn’t seem as if it could be “contained,” my uncle was called for assistance.  Uncle Bay, however, did not oblige and did not intervene: “if you want him to stop actin out, just pay the man.  Ain’t nuthin I can do for you.”  I know very few black folk like Uncle Bay.   Catering to white comfort, fearing white power, or being mesmerized by/chasing whiteness were never part of the game for him.  Uncle Bay did not try to placate my father or ask him to forego his righteous indignation and he did not try and explain/domesticate my father’s behavior to his white bosses who knew they were in the wrong.  “Just pay the man. Ain’t nuthin I can do for you.”  I think of Uncle Bay’s example in the context of my profession often. Time and time and time again (click here for an example), I have witnessed white men want/tell my black graduate students to tone down their anger and verbal forthrightness against the racism they have experienced as students and young faculty.  And yet NO single one of these white men has ever taken a stand against or spoken out against the racism these students encounter; they only want to make sure they can squash black students’ voices and keep the status quo exactly as it is.  Sense wiseness can keep you from being fooled into maintaining this kind of white dominance that works by silencing black folk and ignoring the wrong done to them.  Uncle Bay will always be my model in these instances.

There is a similar story about my Uncle Mac.  Apparently, one of the workers got caught doing something, no one really remembers, but everyone does remember that he accused Uncle Mac of ratting him out and being an Uncle Tom.  Now you have to understand that Uncle Mac is probably the quietest in my family but that quietness doesn’t mean he is going to tolerate disrespect… so Uncle Mac held the man at knifepoint and let him know what would happen the next time he came at him like that.   The man ran straight to Uncle Bay who, by that time, was a manager at this new factory where Uncle Mac worked.  Uncle Bay just told the man: Well, he didn’t cut you, did you?  You look alright.   Now some of the more bougsie types might cringe at the knife in this story, but I don’t have that issue.  The man got what he had coming: don’t dish out something you can’t take in return.  You don’t get sympathy and coddling when you choose to be stupid. Uncle Bay taught me that and he taught me that you don’t take the side of someone who is WRONG and disrespects your people, that’s not where you put your allegiance and you let them always know it too.  This goes for black folk who want to do wrong and then come at you sideways disrespectfully too— this is that real equal opportunity right here.  Sense wiseness doesn’t let you forsake real allies and loyalties.


Yes, I am using sense wiseness as a racial concept here.  If you have been told by every form of media that the darkness of your smooth skin, the thickness of your kinky curls, the fullness of your perfect lips, and the soul-stirring curves of your hips/thighs/backside are ALL WRONG, you need some hardcore sense wiseness to know these are lies and to see the beauty that everyone denies.  You need sense wiseness to know the truth behind a jury and judge of white women who say an unarmed black boy is a danger and should be killed.  You need sense wiseness to know that no, there’s nothing wrong with you when you see the white graduate students and faculty around you get support, nurture, and get-out-of-jail free-passes that you don’t. You need sense wiseness to know that your people are not unhuman, unlovable, unpretty even when the world suggests otherwise.   Every group does not have to cultivate sense wiseness like this; sense wiseness is what you need to counter dominance and power so those who represent that are not part of this counter-system.   Sense wiseness is what lets you question the dogma of a world that denigrates you and tries to control your thinking and action.  Certainly not all black people have it… and surviving this world won’t be easy for them.

My family taught me who to trust and who not to trust, who is real and who is domesticated. I know a white supremacist when I see one and I know someone who is acting in the service of white supremacy. I know what it means to be loyal and I know who my allegiances are reserved for.  I call all that sense wiseness and I am grateful for it.

Knowing When It’s Time To Leave…

The title of this post might suggest that I am talking about a romantic relationship, but I’m not.  I’m talking about knowing when it’s time to leave an academic job… and, yes, there are similarities to leaving a relationship.  

Credit-Card-Identity-TheftHere’s what I mean. At my first tenure-track job, I designed a college-credit-bearing course for high school students that would use the history of African American literacies and education within an intensive, rigorous reading and writing curriculum.  The idea was to get students so caught up in what they were learning that I would take that momentum and build in intensive college-readiness reading and writing competencies.  I had an elaborate multimedia, project-based curriculum with tutor trainings fully planned out. The upper level administration offered full support while my lazy chair and disaffected colleagues offered, at best, lip-support and questions on how I would incorporate math (Yes, math, even though I am a literacies and composition researcher; even though no one else was expected to cover materials outside of their expertise).  On one occasion, I was supposed to meet with my chair to go over the project details before my presentation to the vice provost. She straight didn’t show up because her dog was sick and so couldn’t bark and wake her up in time… yes, this is what $160,000-per-year for a chair can look like (and yes, this is the same chair who orchestrated “disciplinary meetings” that I have previously discussed). I canceled the project when the necessary departmental infrastructure was nowhere foreseeable.  At this point, my chair proceeded to tell everyone in the provost’s office and in my department that she had designed the project herself and that I was only the person she CHOSE to execute it so that I could teach a class related to my research— according to her, this was her project and it belonged to the department.  Did this chair have any background, experience, or research related to teaching black youth or studying black histories?  None. Was this someone with a national reputation and body of substantial research? No.  Was this someone who you could even call mentally and psychologically stable? No. Did anyone challenge or question her?  No one.  Needless to say, the project still has not happened and that was my last year at that university.  After having successfully—maybe even masterfully— passed my third-year review, many were stunned that I would leave the university.  They hadn’t originally thought a young woman of color like me would meet the publication requirements with teaching and service expectations for tenure at that caliber of university; when I announced I was leaving, they thought it was a low self-esteem issue, that I didn’t know how tenurable I was in such a tough place.  Now let’s say this was my partner and let’s also say this partner stole my credit cards. The thinking was: hey, we are together, we need to share everything, so her credit cards must also belong to me.  Now imagine that this fool has NO credit whatsoever so is going to just use what I have established and spend frivolously, without even asking me.  You see, it’s real clear here: I need to change the locks, move if I need to, go get my cousins and meet this fool someplace dark, do whatever I need to do: this fool has GOTS to go… using me, stealing from me, without the kind of moral core to know any better, all while telling me that I am stupid because I am black and a woman.  Of course, it doesn’t have to even be this extreme to get up and leave but the point remains: if I stayed in this kind of relationship, it seems obvious that I suffer from self-hatred and need serious counseling.  So then why would I stay at a job that treats me like this?  You don’t stay somewhere where people keep their foot on your neck so you can’t ever fully shine or grow, thief all your stuff when they need it, and are surprised that you are intelligent and accomplished… and will TALK BACK.  Raise up and move on out.

Just like in a relationship, getting out is not easy though.  You gotta plan and prepare.  In the case of academia, it means you need to stay relevant, keep publishing, stay on the grind, and go out on the market which is basically a year-long application-and-interview process.  If you keep complaining about your situation but refuse to do anything about it, then you are your own tragedy.   Like with relationships though, when you get back out there, you take the past with you so the challenge is to transport the lesson, not the old wounds and negativity.  I certainly learned a lot in that first job but not enough to circumvent the poor choices I made next.  I got fooled by an attractive outward shell, saying all the right things, with no real substance inside.  But I did learn something: take good notice of how you are being treated rather than being swayed by the nice words you are told.

whites-only-sign-sojourner-truth-detroit-apartheid-segregationHere’s an example. At a recent interview, I was asked repeatedly if I could teach something other than African American content.  In my eight years as a tenure track professor, the majority of classes I have taught have been broad and in the seven years before that, still broader.  So in 15 years of college teaching, I have, unfortunately, taught very few Africana-centered classes as clearly shown on my CV.  Given these obvious facts, I saw this as a request to de-blacken myself in an incredibly lily-white faculty space. I was also asked questions about whether or not I could accommodate the specificity of their curriculum and yet no classroom that I visited was doing something that I saw as challenging for the 21st century or to my own teaching abilities.  I was questioned about whether or not I would actually do the commute but why would I go to the interview if I weren’t interested?  (I suspect a white male colleague in my field told some of the interviewers these things, but if those interviewers thought this white man could ever know ANYTHING about me or any black woman, then that’s just even more offensive and stupid). I was the first choice candidate and the offer was amazing but in the end, it IS like a relationship: you can’t be with someone who does not see who you are, does not really want YOU, and squashes the fullness of who and what you are/do/think.  They seemed to need someone like me to forward their specific agendas, but they never really wanted me.  Don’t be fooled by people and spaces that seem to be saying the right thing, but not meaning it.

Though the connections I am drawing here between an academic job and a relationship are intended to be comical, I do believe that the things you are willing to put up with at home match up real nice-and-neat to the kind of foolishness you are willing to put up with at work. I am reminded of a partner who I was with for three years.  After the last and final break-up, this fool was ready to change to be with me again and wanted to get married.   Then this fool went and made me a playlist to show regret and included music only by artists like Usher.  Now I think Usher is talented but if you want to get a sista like me to even consider taking you back, you gon need to do better than that: Gladys Knight’s “Neither One of Us”… Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes “The Love I Lost”.  There was no Dells, no Delfonics, no Stylistics, no O’Jays, no Teddy Pendergrass, no Luther… …I could go on forever here.  Just imagine excluding something like the Chi-Lites “Have You Seen Her” below:

More than thirty years after the original recording, these brothers still sound good and, if that were not enough, be out here rocking mustard-yellow, three-quarter-length suits with matching church shoes, vest, hat, tie, and silk scarf.  Now this is MUSIC!  “Have YOU Seen Her”?  Well let me tell you, that fool I was with for three years didn’t SEE ME!  Today, this knucklehead claims confusion: why couldn’t we just be friends?  After sopping up all of my time, attention, and support, giving very little of that in return, why would I need this fool’s friendship?  It’s not that different from the experience at that interview. On the surface, it all looked good but I knew that there could be no room for me at a job that: 1) keeps talking ONLY about the people they already have or have had, ideas and decisions that are all opposite to who I am and what I bring to the table, and; 2) requests that I change, mute, and de-blacken who I am, all while benefitting from my unique gifts and talents.  I declined the job and trusted that something better would come.

16976869-a-cartoon-man-cries-many-tearsPut most simply, there comes a time when you need to just get up and leave a bad situation whether that is a relationship or a university position and you gotta be ready to leave it all behind.  After the abuse and neglect, don’t expect apologies or acknowledgement from these folk, that’s not who they are.  If they had valued you, were interested in doin you right, you wouldn’t have raised on up out of there in the first place.  Cull a lesson from my past mistakes: I left my first job very angry. I had every intention of taking a photo of my naked behind and mailing it to everyone in the department with a  detailed description of what they could kiss. A friend, however, explained that this could qualify as some kind of punishable crime so the photos were never mailed.  Banned from that possibility, I never really healed and landed at a second job that I grew to hate even more.  This time though, I am getting my own closure otherwise I will miss new opportunities in front of me. If you don’t know what I am talking about, just go to youtube and read the comments section on love songs (I visit these uploads often to get music that is not mainstream) and you will see grownass people begging for the return of their babymommas/babydaddies/ex-lovers (with Maury Povitch-styled paternity issues in full tow). After getting dropped on their heads (and wallets), these stupid fools be out here publicly professing a never-ending, undying love…online youtube-dedicating or posting various renditions of “Don’t Leave Me” or “Lost Love” about an ex-partner’s “Dark side” who, in fact, was nothing but an affront to all humankind anyway (“you are my heart, my soul, my inspiration… I will miss the passion… you were the one… my guiding light” ). Why would anyone say these things to their predator/oppressor?  The same goes for the new job: you can’t hang on to old abuses as something that was ever real or ever about you or ever about real intellectual work or social change.

origins by carmen kynardThere are serious issues related to race and gender in these stories I am telling here and I will certainly be unpacking all that as I start thinking about a new category on this website: Black Women in the Academy.  Today, though, I was inspired by Crunkadelic’s words at the Crunk Feminist Collective.  There is a different kind of charge and commitment to naming names and isms in this new era of the post-Zimmerman-verdict. Here is Crunkadelic on that:

This is a time for fighting, agitation, mobilization, and organizing for systemic change—yes. Absolutely. But this is also a time for reflection, reading, soft beds, self-care, and saying “no!” to time wasters and soul crushers. This is also a time for laughing, lovemaking, singing, crying, wailing, dancing, and holding on to each other tight. This is a time for potlucks, cookouts, BBQs, picnics, cocktails, karaoke, concerts, house parties, blue lights in the basement, slow jams, and dutty wines. You feel me?

Yeah, I’m feelin you.  We got some fighting to do… and getting our minds, hearts, and bodies right and IN THE RIGHT PLACE is a good, first step.