When I have heard white working class people talk about becoming academics/joining the academy, they seem to often talk about an estrangement from peers, neighborhoods, and, especially, from family. I hear black academics sometimes talk this way also, usually in reference to the brothas and sistas on the block who no longer accept them. I just don’t get it. I just don’t have these issues, never have, and don’t imagine I will in the future either. The older that I get, the further “ahead” (in years, I mean) that I move into the academy, the more I seem to be able to talk with and relate to my father.
My father is a retired heating and air conditioning mechanic and seems to be able to fix any motor/engine/system on the planet. As is always so startlingly true of the discarding of black bodies, talent, and genius under white supremacy, in another world, my father could have been an engineer and inventor (I won’t even go into the everyday assistantship I have had to provide on his homemade barbecue grills and electric traps to catch squirrels and critters that eat the garden’s tomatoes). His garage is the 21st century version of Fred Sanford’s junkyard/frontyard with anything that you could ever need to fix anything that is ever broken.
For most of my life, my father worked as custodial staff for the federal building. Today, he gets hassled daily for any odd job that any black person in that part of Ohio seems to need done, so much so that he never answers his phone anymore, forcing me to buy him a cell phone and put it on my account in order to talk to him (preachers seem to be his arch-nemesis for trying to get free or cheap work done). As a scholarship student at an elite high school, my high school peers were the sons and daughters of lawyers and judges so they knew my father from their parents’ frequent visits to the federal building where my father worked. To my peers, I was the janitor’s daughter and it didn’t seem to make a difference that my father was not the janitor at OUR building, he was just a janitor out there somewhere and so that was his and my only identity. I won’t lie and say that I didn’t feel like an ugly, unwanted, poor black girl for most of my high school years— it was what that culture engendered— but I wasn’t estranged from my father’s class consciousness and had a full-blooded, full-bodied critique of elite and upper middle class white people. Today, as a recently tenured professor of English, I relate to my father even more by nature of the work and white supremacy that I navigate daily in the academy. What on earth would make anyone think that it would look any different for me than it did for him?
Being raised in a (very) large, black working class family is what I count as my greatest blessing and asset today. The language and vernacular that redefines and plays, the ability to read whiteness and its violence, the knowledge that pleasure and sustenance won’t come from work, the explicit naming of unfairness in everyday banter, the transformation of the mundane (fish fries, the electric slide, etc) into the sacred have sustained me in ways that are beyond even my conscious awareness.
Last week, I mailed to my father one of the first copies of my first book. When he received it, he called me and was stunned that it was 336 pages and DONE! The thing he kept saying, over and over again, was this: “uhn, uhn, uhn, this is a whole lotta work, baby.” He told me that it was time to rest now before I get back up and get back at it. It was the best recognition of what I had done and the best advice for what I need to do next that I have received to date! I knew he would understand just what I was feeling, down to the core.