Remembering Sojourner Truth: Reading Men and Nations

“The Sunflower Quilting Bee at Arles” by Faith Ringgold (1996) In this lithograph, Madam C. J. Walker, Sojourner Truth, Ida Wells, Fannie Lou Hamer, Harriet Tubman, Rosa Parks, Mary McLeod Bethune, and Ella Baker hold out their quilt. Vincent van Gogh, well known for his paintings of sunflowers, stands to the right. Willia Marie, a fictional character at the bottom left, entertains the women in conversation.

“The Sunflower Quilting Bee at Arles” by Faith Ringgold (1996)
In this lithograph, Madam C. J. Walker, Sojourner Truth, Ida Wells, Fannie Lou Hamer, Harriet Tubman, Rosa Parks, Mary McLeod Bethune, and Ella Baker hold out their quilt. Vincent van Gogh, well known for his paintings of sunflowers, stands to the right. Willia Marie, a fictional character at the bottom left, entertains the women in conversation.

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.

SOJOURNERAs 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 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 school year before she realized just how unethical this chair was.  Like with this moment, I have remained perplexed by my many colleagues 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 (after they have cast their allegiances and trust in ALL the wrong places).  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.

SoujnerThese 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 sho-nuff 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 and will read the institution out loud with you and, especially, when the time is right.  Quite honestly, I assumed that I would find a sistacypher like this everywhere, that institutional racism would inevitably mean as much, but I have learned otherwise.  What I have missed most about these sistafriends is the way they read institutional racism AND patriarchy.  You see, that’s that rare gem right there.   Talking up institutional racism does not always come with talking up patriarchy and misogynoir and I mean something more than talking about public spectacles from the likes of fools like Rick Ross.  I mean talking about the day-to-day workings of men in our workplaces— white men and men of color— all of their immediate articulations of societal structures, social hierarchies, and violence: we didn’t just co-sign our misogynistic black men colleagues who were actin the fool (dropping their “seed” anywhere, taking women students out for drinks, text-messaging/calling/visiting/closing-the-door with women students, etc); nor did we leave our feminism at the door and blindly support the campus’s white patriarchs and their violence.  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.  

sojourner-truth-poster3”I don’t read such small stuff as letters, I read men and nations.”  These are the words of Sojourner Truth, the famous African American suffragist and abolitionist.   I have pushed myself to think deeply about this phrase because it is one that my students continually re-mixed throughout the past semester— always noticing this way that the black women who we 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 understand this expression much further. Reading men AND nations is still that rare gem: the ability to analyze and navigate white supremacy (nation) AND patriarchy (toxic masculinity).  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 .

graveThis semester, I wanted to really think about the reverberating references to black women that have occurred across multiple semesters of my teaching.  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 .  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.  Part of this series for me then was to push myself to see the recurring themes and issues related to black women cultural figures as articulated by students of African descent as literate connections and sophisticated analyses: to, in sum, treat black students’ ruminations seriously.  My past posts about Aja Monet, Lauryn Hill, Erykah Badu, Queen Latifah’s “UNITY,” Eve’s “Love is Blind,” Audre Lorde, and now, Sojourner Truth, intended to show the recurrent references by students of African descent in my classes.  My goal was to hear more deeply… and build new pedagogical understandings from there.

Dr. Todd Craig Delivers Graduate Speech at 2013 Doctoral Hooding Ceremony!

Here is Dr. Todd Craig’s speech delivered at his 2013 Doctoral Hooding Ceremony on May 16, 2013 in Queens, New York.  I hope these words inspire all of us to move forward and onwards, especially all you graduate students out there dissertating/struggling towards the finish line.  

STJ keynote via BartonTo my fellow graduates, families, friends, faculty, staff and everyone who’s present with us both physically and spiritually. I will try to make my remarks as poignant but as brief as possible so we can get right to the thing we’ve all been waiting YEARS for…the hooding!!! I plan on telling one short story with three aspects that I believe will give us a sense of what our individual experiences have been and then will hopefully send us off with something to think about collectively.

So this past Monday when I went to snatch up my brand new Harry Potter wizard robes, which apparently are now called “academic regalia,” I purchased three Stoles of Gratitude. Now one would think after all the money that we’ve spent in tuition, fees and all that other good stuff, that we could really get a few Stoles for free…but I guess since we get to keep the robes, I shouldn’t complain too much. The Stoles of Gratitude are described as such: “After the ceremony, traditionally the new graduate presents the Stole of Gratitude to someone who has provided them with wisdom, guidance, and words of support or with financial assistance.” So when I read this description, I knew that I’d need to purchase three Stoles for three people who taught me some of the most valuable lessons that carried me through this doctoral experience.

The first Stole of Gratitude I got was for my dissertation chair, my mentor and my really good friend: Dr. Carmen Kynard. Believe me when I tell you, saying that Carmen Kynard is your dissertation chair and mentor only sets you up to have extremely BIG shoes to fill. When people ask me about Carmen, I say the following, and it was something I would say before I knew one of her graduate school professors had said it: “my mentor has the ability to walk on water, and I’m just blessed to be in her presence so she can show me how to do the same.” Now mind you, I believe that when it comes to my dissertation committee, I have the best that St. John’s English department has to offer. And I think we all can say that about our committee members; we believe in them just as much as they believe in us. So I truly feel that Dr. John Lowney and poet Lee Ann Brown are hands-down two of the smartest scholars and writers in the department – period! But what Carmen has done for me is truly phenomenal. She is a mentor that shows not only by the conversations you have with her, but also by her track record and by her example in practice. Her publication and conferencing output is simply oppressive to anyone who’s not comfortable in their own writing skin. And she is able to do all this, but just remain plain-ole Carmen from Toledo. Of the countless pieces of wisdom she’s shared, Carmen taught me one of the most important lessons of my doctoral career. In the darkest hour of my doctoral program – and all of us have had those very dark moments, where one movement could be the difference between sitting here at this hooding ceremony and opting out for that masters degree – in my darkest hour, Carmen stood with me. She stood with me when it was not the popular sentiment and my situation was most grave. What made this so poignant for me was the fact that Carmen wasn’t there with me in all the comforts of a full professorship. She wasn’t even an associate professor. She had no tenure. She hadn’t even completed her first year, the ink on her signature for her contract was barely dry. But even with that, she still stood with me. This allowed me to understand a valuable lesson that goes far beyond these sayings of “pick and choose your battles” or “stand for something or fall for anything.” What Carmen taught me is that when you know someone stands with the truth on his or her side, sometimes you must stand in solidarity with them…even if you’re on the plank, with sharks circling below you. There will come a point where someone is on the firing line unnecessarily; and sometimes you need to stand with that person so they can be empowered to fight and pave the path for others that must tread after them.

The second Stole of Gratitude I got was for my mom, Ruth Muchita. My mom is 84 years old, doesn’t move a day over 50, and is officially going to kill me immediately after I get hooded for telling you how old she is. However, I’m constantly celebrating her age, because my mom, as a single mother, either completely raised or had her hand in raising her three sons, me, my three cousins, and another cousin of mine. That’s 8 people…she did that alone on a New York City Social Worker’s salary in Queensbridge and then Ravenswood Housing Authority. My mom instilled in me two absolute imperatives; the first was the value of an education. But the second – and really the most paramount – was to NEVER be ashamed of who I was and where I came from. To be joyful in my own blackness, to be proud of my social and cultural upbringing, and to NEVER forget where I came from. Even in the midst of the most abject racism. Even in the midst of the most discriminatory moments of my doctoral trajectory, where professors in my own program would say very clearly: “the DA program in English here at St John’s University was just fine until Todd Craig came along.” Even in the midst of classrooms, where my colleagues would say “you cannot continue to bring the hood with you” or “why are you always talking about THAT part of Queens (you know…the projects)”, I knew that I had to be what my man DJ Clark Kent would call ATF; I had to be the “Ambassador To Fresh” for my community. After all, it was that same community that nurtured and cultivated my intellectual prowess and capability when NO ONE else believed in my potential. So with that in mind, regardless of all things, I was required to be the Ambassador To Fresh – so that my professors, my doctoral cohort and my colleagues who had skewed perceptions of urban inner-city environments, skewed perceptions of the capacity of the African-American male to achieve academic excellence and intellectual success, could finally understand just what we are capable of. So encompassing ALL THINGS FRESH meant that I was responsible for rejecting those notions of invisibility presented to us by Ralph Ellison over 50 years ago. I was responsible for representing my home from the highest hair follicle in my nappy blowout down to the super-exclusive Nike 1972 Quickstrike Shoes on my feet. But it wasn’t only just about that, it was also about how I carried myself in classroom discussions and intellectual conversations that leaked outside of the classroom; how I presented my research and scholarship yearly at national conferences; how I crafted every sentence on every published page BEFORE, DURING AND AFTER MY DOCTORAL COURSEWORK, RIGHT THROUGH TO the 256 page document called my doctoral dissertation. I was AND STILL REMAIN an ambassador – and I was only able to appreciate the gravity and significance of that role based on my community, on Clark Kent’s ATF mentality…and really and truly based on my mom, and her lessons in telling me to NEVER forget who I was or where I came from.

20130516_194940The third Stole of Gratitude I purchased is for my fiancé, Stefanie Douglas. We have been together for almost 8 years, I’m pretty sure that’s considered being legally married in a number of different Commonwealth states. We also share the responsibility of raising our extraordinary daughter Kaylee together. I haven’t shared this story too often, but I will share it with all of you now. Stefanie was a returning student and became pregnant with our daughter while she was still in school. Once Kaylee was born in June, Stefanie still had to complete one last semester to fulfill her degree requirements. So we spent the summer together as a family. And then the time came in late August where Stefanie had to return to school – to actually complete a semester of student teaching. So Stefanie would go to student teaching in Bensalem, PA from Monday to Friday. Then on Friday, she would get in her car and drive up to New Jersey to spend the weekend with me and Kaylee, who was an infant at the time. And then on either Sunday night or early Monday morning, Stefanie would drive back to Bensalem, and continue through a week of student teaching. Now many people said “Todd, you’re an amazing father – you’re taking care of Kaylee by yourself during the week.” But my response to that is Stefanie is even more of amazing mother. Because to this day, I still do not know how she was able to muster enough mental and emotional dexterity to leave her newborn daughter. And mind you, there were tears and crying and all sorts of emotion that can ONLY be explained by the saying “there is NO greater love than that of a mother for her child.” But I never told Stefanie how much I admired her, how much she was my hero and role model for being able to make it through those darkest of times. I never told Stefanie about the times me and Kaylee cried when she wasn’t looking. I never told her about how tough it was for us, that she wasn’t alone. But what I learned from her in that moment is that you must be willing to make sacrifices for a greater good, regardless of what the cost may be. So what’s almost two years of collecting data at the most obscure of places in the most unorthodox and inconvenient times? What’s 6 or so months of 2-4 hours of sleep nightly to finish a dissertation? What’s a year of teaching a 5-5 course load at 3 different schools? After what Stefanie did for our daughter’s greater good, I felt empowered to be able to do just about anything. We always wanted Kaylee to understand that she stands on the shoulders of those who came before her, and that she is cut from a cloth so exquisite that people WILL be mad at her later in life. But if there is one thing Kaylee will never be able to do is say that she CAN’T do something. After all, if mommy was able to leave you during the week to finish school, you can do ANYTHING. Things might be hard, they might be difficult – you may not fully understand HOW to do something…but never will she be able to say she CAN’T do it. Because sacrifices have been made for her greater good, so that she could absolutely do it, without any question whatsoever.

So three Stoles of Gratitude to commemorate three valuable lessons: when you know the truth is on your side, stand with a person in crisis, and empower them to fight on for others that will come after them. NEVER be ashamed of who you are and where you might come from. And be willing to make sacrifices for a greater good, regardless of what the price tag may be. These lessons are not new nor innovatively profound. But they are paramount for all of us to reflect upon yet again. As we progress into fields of teaching and research, whether for educational purposes, corporate America or your friendly neighborhood NPO, these lessons remain priceless and should be revisited as we move forward; for as we sit here in this new academic regalia, somehow someway, someone has done one of these things for you to make your life easier. I believe that part of our job now should be to return that favor given to us by giving a favor to someone else who might be in the position we were in a year or two or five or ten or twenty years ago…especially if that is the crucial moment that moves someone past the idea of “Masters degree” and into the realm of “Doctorate.”

I think that I can comfortably speak on behalf of all my colleagues in this room when I extend my thanks to all of our families, friends, committee members, professors and mentors who have seen us through this process. I also think I can comfortably state that we will do our best to allow your legacies to flourish properly. Finally, I want to apologize to all of you in advance – when I’m called to be hooded, I’m bringing my daughter with me, so please excuse any time delay that may cause.

Thanks for your time and your listening ear; enjoy this moment called our doctoral hooding; congratulations to everyone who has made it to this moment – and be sure to reach back to someone so they can make it to this moment too.

Happy Mother’s Day to the Women Who Have Kept Me

Many of you already know that my mother lives with me now.  After she lost her job in the recession crunch, I had to do some financial wizardry and move her from Ohio to Brooklyn and become a new head-of-household of sorts (I have always been able to make a dollah outta 15cents but this took a little EXtra creativity).  As I get older, I realize that most of us daughters will be facing similar circumstances in caring for aging parents. My mother, however, does not consider herself aging so we go to a Jazz Brunch/Bar in Manhattan every Mother’s Day and by Jazz, I mean a real quartet that does covers like “All Blues” from Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue, NOT that Kenny-G-Twinkle-Twinkle foolishness.  It has only been in the last few years that I have even been in the same city as my mother on Mother’s Day so I figure we may as well go all out (which, for my mother, also means eating my dessert.)

"Fruit of Generosity" by Leslie Ansley (exhibited at the August Wilson Center for African American Culture in 2012)

“Fruit of Generosity” by Leslie Ansley (exhibited at the August Wilson Center for African American Culture in 2012)

I know Mother’s Day is mostly a Hallmark invention but I must admit that I like a day to put it all on pause for mothers. For me, that means all the women in my family who have raised me… which is a lot.  I have strong memories of being a little girl and various adults, especially my family and close neighbors, asking me: “who keep you when your momma work?”  OR “who keepin you right now?” (the second question was for when I was on a part of the block where I wasn’t supposed to be or at the corner store without permission). Who keep you?  That’s always been a favorite expression of mine.  No one in my family or immediate kin network ever asked “who babysits you?”   I was never babysat, I was always KEPT.  These are two completely different meanings that African American Language so brilliantly captures.  It is hardly coincidence that in a world that will bomb 4 little girls going to Sunday School, reference nine-year old actresses with curse words, and shoot a teenager dead for wearing a hoodie that black communities would use language to create a different world for black children. In my case, one of my female first-cousins kept me (most often, a cousin who I call Lat or Janet) or one of my seven Aunties kept me (most often an auntie who I call Aunt MamaLee.)  I also kept my little cousins and so did my mother– who is still called Auntie by these ex-in-laws even though my parents divorced when I was a small child.  There is a philosophy of mothering that elevates the role of childcare done by women that goes far beyond any biological definition.  And there is also a philosophy for how black children need to be raised and looked after: keeping black children is simply a different kind of love. It is more than merely sitting with them, teaching them, or taking care of them; it is a kind of valuing that only black communities have been willing to provide for black children.  You keep the things that are most valuable; you do not discard them even in a world that encourages you to do so.  If we weren’t so self-hating by regarding Black Language and Vernacular Culture as “improper”/street/slang, we would see a worldview contained in it that could sustain us.

This notion of KEEPING also makes me think of my sister-friends today.  Most of us do not live near our extended families, not like the way we grew up.  I see my sister-friends go to great lengths to choose black daycare centers for their children and black caretakers who identify with black culture and black womanhood.  To me, they are looking for people who will keep their children, not babysit them or even teach them to read and write.  After all, as researcher/academic/professional, I would not need any school to teach any child around me to read or write.  I can do that much better.  What I would need is a community that will provide something much more than skills-building and childcare services: a community that will keep its children in a world that discards them at every turn.

As a grown woman now, everyone in my family still knows who kept me when I was little, which children I kept, and which children my mother kept so I thank every woman who ever kept me… my mother, my aunties, my cousins, my mentors, the older girls down the block, and all of my sister-friends now.  Happy Mother’s Day to all of you!

Impact of Audre Lorde: “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action”

audre_posterWhile attending a professional event, I ran into a male colleague who lives across the country.  When the day’s events ended and we went for tea, the very first conversation he initiated was a discussion about the breasts of his ex-girlfriend who was also at the event, a woman who he described as “always thick up top” (with an accompanying hand gesture to match).  While also describing how she looked in the black jeans he fondly remembered her always wearing, I let the brotha slide and assumed he was delirious from trauma (this ex has dogged him in a way that I have never seen ANY woman do before…and he lets her).  I will say here that this woman is an ethnic white woman (i.e., a non-Western-European woman who passes for white but does not receive full benefits as white, though her children do), a fact that will soon be relevant to this story. I don’t particularly care about black men’s racial dating preferences— I am with Mo’Nique on this one:  just don’t come running back to sistas when you get disrespected and “nigger-fied,” stop expecting black women to mammy you up when you get wounded.  Not even 20 minutes after his aloud remembering/daydreaming of his ex’s body, a man of color, who we both knew, joined us and then immediately complimented my appearance.  My friend made sure to let me know that he was infuriated by this man’s show of misogyny in complimenting me.  It is just too obvious so I won’t even bother to interpret this inclination to be offended when a sista gets a comparably respectful compliment after you have waxed on, just 10 minutes before, about a white woman’s body.  Two weeks after this incident, I let the brotha know that his overly-sexualized language was not cool.  Well, let me tell you, he wasn’t tryna hear NONE of that.  I was just going off, my critique was coming from nowhere, my observation was inaccurate and decontextualized (he didn’t remember talking about other women’s bodies was his response, so I must have been lying), and, on top of all that, I was told I was treating him as an inferior, basically enacting white supremacy on him.  Yes, I was THE ONE chasing whiteness. I was the one he said was acting like a white man. And despite being publicly D-I-S-S-E-D by this woman, he continually needed to let me know that he had deeply loved her, that she was who he had once intended to spend the rest of his life with, all a way of letting me know that he could sexualize/discuss/honor/protect his woman in any way that he wanted, whenever he wanted, and that I was too much of the inferior-black-woman-stock to dare criticize her or him.  It was as if the likes of me had committed some kind of serious affront by even mentioning this woman (he was the one who always brought her up—she is simply NOT the kinda person I know).  He even aggressively defended her Virtue, Truth, and Honesty by emphatically insisting that each time she initiated contact with him via social media and the like (over the course of many, many years), she always backed off if he had a girlfriend.  Let me shed some light here: on each and every occasion that she initiated digitized sexual banter, her husband and small child were down the hall or maybe even in the same room (with brothaman convinced that he was simultaneously offering deep, serious commitment to the girlfriend he had nearby though he kept a skank always waiting in the wings). He was so mesmerized when this white woman claimed she loved him more than her own white husband that he could not imagine, not even for a minute, that she might be less than virtuous. Let me shed some more light here about race and gender.  I know NO 40+ year old sista-professor who has unprotected sex with so many different men, WHILE still married to her white husband, that when she gets pregnant, she has no idea who the babydaddy is, confidently extorts many men for false paternity without hesitation or remorse (deliberately doctoring documents), introduces her son to all her suitors/tricks (with the boy even asking “are you gonna be my new daddy?”), and then has a black male professor adamantly defending/ praising her as the Virgin Mary Mother.  These are not new behaviors that a woman would acquire at age 40 but a lifelong, devoted lifestyle. You see, sistas in the academy, or ANYWHERE, do not receive praise, love, and protection for these kinds of lifestyle choices— to paraphrase Sherri Shephard: we get called Supahead for way less than that. Less than 2 months after their “formal relationship,” the prized trophy, of course, dropped the brotha, moved on to yet another (probably, a new white man), got herself a divorce a few months later (a given when you are visibly pregnant by someone else), with brothaman so deeply wrapped in his narcissistic delusion that he saw NONE of this ish coming and couldn’t seem to grasp how and why he lost my friendship (amongst other things). NOTE: parents might want to think deeper about the kind of college classes they are paying for…ain’t no way a “professor” got time for all these EXTRA extra-marital activities and be focused on their own or somebody’s else child too.  What I am most interested in here is highlighting this brotha’s automatic inclination to silence me, to let me know that I was crazy and too unworthy/non-woman/de-sexual to critique him or discuss his trophy/ethnic white woman. It is a deep memory that will always stay with me because the event we were attending was lily-white and so here I was with the only real color in the place, just as silenced and degraded as anywhere else.  Though armed with an ability to memorize an arsenal of Audre Lorde quotes, it has never occurred to this brotha that his language and actions are wholly problematic, that he is wholly colonized. When you choose, over and over again, and so deeply cherish (and spend all your money on) a white woman who has never treated you as anything other than her big, dumb black buck— while calling/regarding black women as angry and bitter— you can be sure that your consciousness and spirit will never rest near the area code or time zone of Audre Lorde’s.

audre-Lorde-warfareThis example is both extreme and mundane: extreme, in the sense that, no, most brothas ain’t this lost and pathological (I also suspect mental and/or neurological instability in this case); but the example is also mundane in that this example captures the everyday, automated kind of silence and invisibility of black women.  This silence is what I believe registers my students’ deep connections to Audre Lorde’s essay, “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action” which we read from Sister Outsider. I noticed right away in the first semester that I taught black women’s rhetoric that the women in the class kept re-mixing quotes from Lorde’s essay into their own essays— each week, each class, for the entire semester.  Yes, every class! After that first semester, I decided that I would open the course with this particular essay and let Lorde set the definition for black women’s rhetoric where her title, purpose, and argument would be the guiding metaphor for black women’s rhetoric: transforming silence into language and action.

audre-lorde-posterI can’t even begin to convey how many young women of color in my classes reiterate, time and time again when commenting to Lorde, that they have choked their words after feeling punished with labels and messages (both overt and subtle) of being loud, angry, ugly, anti-woman, unworthy, aggressive, crazy, irrational, stupid.   What comes next is this: 1) a recognition that these labels and messages are silencing tactics; 2) an unwillingness to continue accepting those labels and messages as accurate; and 3) a newfound respect for shouting from the rooftops whether it be themselves or other women. I am looking forward to the final projects and final exams that I am collecting this week because I know that what I will be holding in my hands are 30 attempts at transforming silence to language and action.  I know that I will hold in my hands words from wounded souls who are doing more than merely memorizing Lorde’s words but making them real, people who will actually SAY AND DO SOMETHING.  Like I have said before about the black women who are constantly referenced in my classes, what I have been calling the Political-Intellectual Canon of Young Black Women, it is these moments in the classroom that remind me of the power of the women we study.  I can sometimes forget the impact Lorde has on young women who meet her for the first time. In the academy, we value the end-goal of acquired expertise and miss the divine and deep nature of the beginnings, those first introductions, and so sleep on the most important moments.  One of my students even told me that she keeps one Lorde quote with her at all times now (from her 1991 Interview in Callaloo):

Whenever a conscious Black woman raises her voice on issues central to her existence, somebody is going to call her strident, because they don’t want to hear about it, nor us.  I refuse to be silenced and I refuse to be trivialized, even if I do not say what I say perfectly… You can’t get rid of me just by saying I’m strident, or I’m too intense, or I’m silly, or I’m crazy, or morbid, or melodramatic; hey listen, I can be all of those things, and you still must open yourself to what I am talking about, in the interests of our common future.    

That’s a powerful definition of black women’s rhetoric… and a powerful quote to keep on my person at all times too, especially during this last week of portfolios and final projects.