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.

“This Woman’s Work”: Sybrina Fulton

Mamie-Sybrina Collage

My Collage of Mamie Till-Bradley, Emmett Till, Sybrina Fulton, and Trayvon Martin

“Trayon Martin is the Emmett Till” of our time… that’s a statement I have continually heard in these past days and I would have to agree.  The corollary is also true here:  Sybrina Fulton is the Mamie Till-Bradley of our time.  In Sybrina Fulton’s talk at the rally at One Police Plaza in New York City this past weekend, I was particularly inspired by these lines:

As I sat in the courtroom, it made me think that they were talking about another man. And it wasn’t. It was a child, who thought as a child, who acted as a child, who behaved as a child. And don’t take my word for it. He had a drink and candy. So, not only—not only do I vow to you to do what I can for Trayvon Martin, I promise you I’m going to work hard for your children, as well, because it’s important. (see 16:43 to 17:20 of the footage shot by Democracy Now).

When you think of the difficulty Mamie Till-Bradley had in securing her son’s body (Mississippi seemed to block her every move to have his body shipped to her in Chicago), it seems strangely reminiscent of the days Sybrina Fulton had to wait for her son’s body to be named Trayvon Martin, rather than the original John Doe white police proclaimed him to be, unworthy of even an investigation. It is not simply that both mothers lost their sons to white violence, publicly paraded by the courts’ refusal to convict their murderers.  It is the way these women opened up  their grief to the world and to a social analysis of that world.

Mamie Till-Bradley has not often been written into the chronicles of history as radical; it has mostly been black women and black feminists who have done this work and will continue to do this work with Sybrina Fulton’s life also.  Both of these women’s radical, emotional openness is simply chilling for me.   Ironically, we are in an age where everybody thinks they are “radically open” because they can post photos and videos on any and every social networking site of: 1) their children performing liberal rituals of white, nuclear American familyhood such that facebook, google+, and youtube become the new “Leave it to Beaver”; 2) themselves, friends, and family and the neoliberal objects/vacations/outings/performances they have materially acquired as the site of today’s corporate-induced narcissism.  All that “openness” but ain’t none of it like Sybrina Fulton’s! Or Mamie Till-Bradley’s!  An openness that looks American apartheid right in the eye rather than promote its whiteness!  At a time when most people use the “public forum” to simply promote the system we are in, Mamie and Sybrina halted the empty notions of progress, material celebration, and mainstream values that a white world would want to visually represent as Truth.  If there was ever a definition of speaking Truth-to-Power, this is it.

I think about Sybrina Fulton quite often and I cringe at the label that I hear too many often giving to her: strong black woman.  Yes, Sybrina Fulton is strong.  Who would suggest otherwise?   Yes, I understand the sentiment because so many of us hold her close and dear to our hearts and prayers, hoping she will know she is loved and cherished, shaken to our own core by the pain we can only imagine she is enduring.  Yes, we feel the awesomeness of her ability to stand in the face of that pain, brutality, and ugliness. But we need some deeper understandings of this legacy of black women and black mothers who defy all odds to love their children and challenge a world that hates black people.  Violence against black children is violence against black mothers so strength ain’t even the half.

Our current context is one that melds:

Multimedia cartels where most Americans visually circumscribe and incessantly celebrate mainstream, white familyhood, a continual site of historical violence and exclusivity in this country— I am not suggesting this is limited to the U.S., you need only watch the current foolishness surrounding the Royal Baby in England to know the U.S. has never been alone in mobilizing white imperialism to define family/nation;

WITH

A world where black motherhood is demonized and made into public spectacle for a gaze as white as the viewing of Gone with the Wind Tune in any Tuesday or Wednesday to Tyler Perry on OWN; he, of course, has not invented these images but when we promote them ourselves then you KNOW we’s in trouble (last night, Big Momma sang a slave spiritual to her white female boss, further castigated her own black daughter-turned-prostitute, and begged/sobbed for son’s release from prison).

When you place Sybrina Fulton into this kind of context, you begin to see why the label “strength” just won’t do for a black woman like her.  And you begin to see why so many black women will write her body, story, and pain so centrally into the history of black people and black freedom.

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.

No, You Can’t Touch My Hair: For Karina

Early this morning, I talked with one of my former students, Karina Ozuna, who was deeply disturbed.  She is trying to make sense of the current public art exhibit going on in Union Square in New York City called “You Can Touch My Hair.”

colonialdiscourse3As you can probably tell, places like twitter are all abuzz.  Like Karina, I understand the desire for a much needed dialogue about black hair but acting like these dialogues can just happen any ol’ where and any ol’ how and outside of discussions of particular sociohistorical experiences and political realities is problematic.  Those of us in NYC know that Union Square gets marked as a hip spot given the characters the park attracts, its radical history, the statue of Gandhi, and the close proximity to places like the New School and New York University.  However, you gotta also know that the rents in that area run at about $2500.00 per month for a small studio.  Yes, I said a studio apartment: one small bathroom, one small closet, and an open space (maybe 15X30 feet) that will include your kitchen.  What might it mean to be a black woman, standing in THAT space, holding a sign asking for folk to come feel on you?  While folk take pictures. This sounds like the neo-racial (usually misnamed post-racial) version of an auction block during slavery… mixed with the infamously racist exhibits at the 1893 World Fair (which celebrated Colored People’s Day by giving all African Americans a free watermelon)… mixed with the 19th century exhibits of and experiments on Sarah Baartman, otherwise known as Venus Hottentot (as depicted in the drawing above).  You really can’t deny the similarities here. Even the designer of the public art exhibit references her inspiration from a white female friend who likened her desire and curiosity to touch black hair with wanting to touch snake skin and rabbit fur.  I love Karina’s response to all of this:

I am assuming that she probably wants to start a dialogue on black hair, and it is usually the job of the oppressed or the objectified to educate the oppressor (paraphrasing Audre Lorde), but why should I have to educate people on my hair, or let people touch it at that? Why must my hair be viewed as “the other” or not the norm?  Why is it so hard to understand that our hair does not grow straight? It is curly, kinky and nappy. My hair grows up, not down, and that is not weird, odd, or abnormal; it is nature, it is an act of God.  This exhibit feels too much like a petting zoo for me, and I’m tired of us getting treated like animals.

I’m with Karina on this one.  I’m not interested in honoring white curiosity and I wonder about the black women who are: the all-consuming fascination with and desire for white attention and approval. I am certainly up for the challenge to interrogate white curiosity of my body but I’m not talking about the kind of interrogation where I trick myself out.  I think this exhibit might confuse too many folk into thinking they can just run up on black folk and cop a feel because, let me tell you this: if someone touches my hair who isn’t my partner, cousin/family, or sista-hairdresser, their fingers gon be mine! To her credit, I think the creator of the exhibit, Antonia Opiah at unruly.com, is willing to welcome such discussions, despite her totally ahistorical and apolitical dismissal of black people who consider the public spectacle of white people running their fingers through black hair an issue of an assumed ownership of black bodies (her response to that interpretation is that such an interpretation is: “extreme and likely written out of the anger and shock of their encounters.”)  What inspires me so much about Karina and her peers is that they do not seem to be missing the 200 years of history that situates this new World Fair happening in Union Square.

I am reminded again of Karla Holloway’s work.  Holloway keeps warning us that there can be no expectation of privacy for black female bodies in our current moment.  We are witnessing an almost automated public spectacle-making of black bodies with media cartels that offer us daily consumption of the likes of Flava Flav, Real Housewives, or Tyler Perry’s newest television shows.  It makes me very nervous when black women choose to forego noticing this reality Holloway describes and, instead, work to promote it. To Karina and all of her sisters and brothers in spirit: keep holding up that righteous indignation.  I am feelin’ you.

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 past eight 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 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 misogyny 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 male colleagues who were actin the fool (dropping their “seed” anywhere, taking female students out for drinks, text-messaging/calling/visiting/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 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.  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-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 must take this expression much further. Reading men AND nations is still that rare gem: 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 .

graveThis semester, I wanted to really think about the reverberating references to black female figures 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 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.  Part of this series for me then was to push myself to see the 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’.  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.