I once received a very curious letter of recommendation when I chaired a search committee for a writing program. The letter was written by a prominent white female scholar in my field, often praised and respected for her progressive feminist scholarship and perspectives on race, class, gender, sexuality, oppression, et al. The letter was written for one of her white male graduate students. This particular composition-rhetoric scholar took it upon herself to offer a lens into the caliber of his teaching (his dissertation involved literary theory so the scholar had not, in fact, seen any of his scholarship, only his teaching, as she was the teacher of record for his required teaching practicum in the Ph.D. program). The letter was pretty much the standard, praise-full candidate letter but then she switched it up: she began comparing this man’s teaching to the “great Hollywood movies on teaching” (yes, this is an exact quote that I have never been able to get out of my head) like Freedom Writers. She compared his ability to get students excited by traditional lectures to what Michelle Pfifer’s character does in the “great movie,” Dangerous Minds. And she described these movies and this man’s teaching with deep awe and admiration. Now everybody who I know/read who sees themselves connected to critical literacy/radical pedagogy has criticized these movies for their depiction of white women as the saviors of the savage, natives in the urban schools of the big, bad, dark, ghetto jungles. Everybody…. I…. Know. And yet, somehow, this woman, someone considered a progressive feminist rhetorician, missed the whole damn message. I mean, really? Even Mad Tv gets this:
Now I don’t mean to suggest that the field has only produced and/or rewarded the kind of white feminist scholar who I have described. She is not the stand-in for all, for sure, thank goodness. Nonetheless, I still got some questions.
This memory was triggered for me this week while I was attending the National Women’s Studies Association (NWSA). As it so happens, I was really drawn this year to black and Latina women who talked about the paths they have taken as scholars/activists/intellectuals/feminists. I was also really drawn by these women because they had once been connected to my own field, a field which none of these women remain linked with, a field in which I get letters like the one I described above from someone widely respected as a “feminist.”
My ears first perked up when Beverly Guy-Sheftall began to describe that she started her career the same way I had: teaching remedial English/writing classes, in her case, at Spelman. Though I was not at an HBCU like Guy-Sheftall, my experience at an urban college with classrooms 100% black and Latino/a, more than 25 years later from Guy-Sheftall’s start, was no different than what she described: an unyielding white, male, racist, patriarchal curriculum and structure. She went on to describe how she and students organized the takeover and kidnapping of trustees until they agreed to elect, for the first time ever, a black woman as president of Spelman; she told this story alongside tales of Toni Cade Bambara teaching black women’s literature courses in her home, non-credit-bearing, because the university would not allow Bambara to teach such courses.
Later in the conference, I was stunned even further to hear that both Ruth Zambrana and Bonnie Thornton Dill had worked as open admissions administrators at the City University of New York (CUNY). For all that I have read and heard about open admissions and “remedial education” at CUNY, I have never heard the names of the black and Latina women who made those spaces livable for the first large wave of black and Latino/a students to get college degrees in New York at universities that never really wanted them there. Never! And yet, here they were right here, telling their stories. I had not known any of these histories of Guy-Sheftall, Zambrana, or Thornton, but more strikingly, it reminded me of something I DID already know: that the field of composition had written the history of open admissions, “remedial”/basic writing of the 1970s without a SINGLE utterance of the work of black and Latina women/radical feminists of color. And these women were, of course, there all along, women who, as far as I am concerned, did not get taken along and/or did not want to be as the field moved “forward.”
At the conference, I had a conversation with a woman who I had never met who said that she feels more energized and politically engaged at NWSA, given her focus on issues of social oppression and repression, than she does at the major composition conference that we both attend. I agreed with her and, in fact, told a good friend today the same thing, inspiring me to write this post, after I described to him the solidarity I felt at NWSA. Like I already said, what seems most relevant for me now is that none of these women whose stories I have chronicled here stayed connected to the field. I can’t say for sure at this juncture whether or not my fate will be the same.
It was Guy-Sheftall who really took my breath away at the conference. At the close of her presentation, she described herself as someone who, if she were to die tomorrow, has done exactly the kind of work she wanted to do and lived exactly the kind of life she wanted to live: one that was never dictated by the name of the school she taught at, her salary, or her reputation, but by the work she could do within the terms of her own self-definition as a radical black feminist. She challenged the audience of mostly women of color in that room to see to it that they did the same. I was so inspired by that statement that I gave it its own category here… I intend to live my life, both on and off campus, in the same way.