Today, I celebrated my birthday with family and friends. I like the day to be one where family and friends cocoon one another so I went with my mother and friends to my favorite Mexican restaurant in Manhattan. In the section where we chose to sit, we were near two large Latino families, a Latina lesbian couple, a group of late-20-sumthin, beautifully adorned black women who commanded the room’s attention, and a group of Jamaican women my age who gave the most exquisite analyses of the problems with black men I have ever heard. My Indian waitress was very fly and kept my favorite drink flowing, the restaurant’s specialty Prickly Pear Cactus Margarita. James Brown, Lakeside, and Julieta Venegas (especially my favorites, “El Presente” and “Me Voy”) bumped in the background. It was a perfect New York City outing— I am convinced that you really just can’t get this kind of mix anywhere else. Though I certainly should not have been thinking about work as I celebrated, I found that I was, most specifically in relation to my course that starts next week on Black Women’s Rhetoric. Friends, work, and birthday seem to coincide for me this year.
My two closest friends from graduate school— more affectionately known as Honeijam and Yoyo— are two people who I am thinking about most. I don’t really know how we decided to start sending each other lavish birthday gifts, usually art or rituals for self-care, but I know it started in graduate school and continues today. We were the only women of color in our cohort in graduate school and we made a pact to one another that we would finish the coursework in three years, plus two more years for the dissertation. We called ourselves the Ph.Divas! I was the most unbelieving which probably accounts for the reason why I was the last to finish in our final year. Honeijam was no joke and got in your face all the time and was, unsurprisingly, the first to finish. Yoyo bridged all communication and birthed a beautiful baby girl at the same time that she birthed her dissertation. Baby Diva was in full Diva attire at our graduation ceremonies.
We kept our pact to one another and I know that I would not have made it out if it weren’t for them. The alienation and hostility that you can encounter as a black woman in graduate school is very real. It is still all too common that you don’t see anyone who looks like you; and no one from your history or background is included in the books you must read for your classes and exams. Yoyo and Honeijam were my buffers. That’s what we did for one another. It extended beyond mere support during coursework and dissertation writing though. On one occasion, during the writing of my dissertation thesis, I just couldn’t pay the fees required to maintain matriculation with my 36K/year job as a college instructor with a 5/4 load. This meant that I couldn’t access the library or the other campus spaces/documents that I needed. By that time, I had inherited a house that was a fixxer-upper in a crack-neighborhood that no one wanted to live in at that time, to put it mildly, from an engagement that ended very badly. I was learning how to be my own contractor, putting up dry wall by myself on the weekends, teaching, and doing graduate school, all at the same time, pretty much with a broken heart the whole way through. I had no family in the area and no family with the funds to even ask for twenty dollars, much less a personal loan. Any extra penny went to a bucket of paint; credit cards had to be kept clear to do things like fix the roof before it caved in. In that context and in New York City, that 36K meant cup-of-noodles pretty much every night. I went to campus one day to try and arrange something when I couldn’t access anything anymore because of my unpaid bill (you cannot enter doors of any building in NYC without ID). The desk help just looked at me like I was crazy. “Your bill has been paid” the woman told me. “What?!” I asked her to look again and then the light bulb went off: the Ph.Divas paid it! I was right and it was like pulling teeth to get them to allow me to pay them back and it’s not like they had the extra funds themselves. I could tell countless stories like this about my Ph.Divas— like the time I was really sick, immobile, with no food in the house, 5 dollars in the bank, and no energy to walk to the store to get even 3 dollars worth of something. My then-boyfriend was, of course, nowhere to be found. All of a sudden, I heard a knock on the door and there were the Ph.Divas with groceries and then just went to town in my kitchen and on me until I felt better. That was what graduate school was like: three soul-sisters who pulled each other through. It feels like every conscious black woman that I know can tell this kind of story about their sisters.
So, yes, this is what I am thinking about as I plan my class that meets this week and as I end today’s celebration. I often have my students do presentations where they have to do rhetorical analyses, not of famous activists but of black women they know or are somehow part of their lives (this includes popular culture). I don’t think I have been so good at helping students see that the everyday practices of love, care, and sustenance that Honeijam and Yoyo embody as black women are black women’s rhetorics. I mean rhetoric here as something much more than the persuasive style to move an audience towards your goals. I am talking about a disposition where the most maligned group effects a kind of shift, an alteration of the geographies of white privilege, where you imagine and enact an alternative future and way of being human. It is a counter-ideology that manifests itself in the daily workings of making a black woman’s life possible in settings where that life is not welcomed. I don’t know how to communicate that to my students other than to tell them the stories of my Ph.Divas. One of the best parts of my birthday today was my reminder to do so.