I just returned from hearing Rita Dove, poet and professor, read from the published Penguin Anthology of 20th Century Poetry (which she edited). She is full of fun and laughter and sarcastic good humor. I would be her best friend if I could. She signed my journal and left a blessing: “Fill these pages with your songs.”
Thinking a lot of academy thoughts this week. Reading Telling Histories: Black Women Historians in the Ivory Tower.
Dr. Brown just articulated better than I ever could what it is like being a College Educated Negress:
Where can students of color get intellectual validation that does not require them to so fully assimilate that they lose the best of themselves, their families,and their cultures? It occurred to me that through grade school and high school we had learned to compete, to keep up, but not to surpass; to stand alongside but not in front; to fit in but not to reshape.*
Standing alongside you begin to know the discomfort of ghosts.
And that pressure to assimilate, to choose between where your family is and where you are…well.
That feels a lot like the dissonance of being raised under the determined, near frantic optimism of a colorblind, post-Movement, Puerto Rican mother and an African-American father seething with internalized racism in cocaine80s Chicago.
And that feels a lot like wanting things and not having them and striving for things and not getting them, and dotting your i’s and crossing your t’s and still watching the goal move further away again and again and again, and picking up Piri Thomas for help and picking up Cherríe Moraga for help and picking up, good gawd, and picking up and holding close and hugging Gwendolyn Brooks for help and good heavens almighty, it feels like picking up Octavia and picking her brain and reading every word and holding her hand when things were too much….
And it feels a lot like frustration and tastes bitter as blood. Because Piri is dead now. And it took over 24 hours for an obituary to post. And I never had a chance to tell him what his work meant to me. And Gwendolyn is dead. And she lived in Chicago. And I, knuckle-head high schooler I was, missed the chance to tell her what she meant to me. And Octavia is dead. And she lived half a country away and I was never gonna get to tell her what she meant to me but damn if only I could have.
And it feels like the cold that sweeps across the back of your neck when you realize a mentor you loved like a father…his facebook page is still active. Active. Alive. Living. And you want to post something but you can’t. Because how do you tell someone that you are also active.alive.living now but only because they lived? How do you tell someone that you have survived this far in part because of what they were and that you are remembering them all the time and regretting every phone call you didn’t make and even that doesn’t make you feel better because you know they knew that they knew that you knew you were loved anyway. That nothing you could do could lose their love for you.
And it feels like ……..
But is also full of promise.
After all, here I am. Writing stuff. Grateful for things like Facebook profiles and black Latinidad Twitter communities and emails from mentors that affirm that “yes, I check it too” and voices who check in with me from across social media to say, “Hey there. Hey. Hear my voice.”
I am still here. Writing stuff. Thinking thoughts. I haven’t disappeared yet.
*Leslie Brown, “How a Hundred Years of History Tracked Me Down,” Telling Histories: Black Women Historians and the Ivory Tower, 262
Read this today and I never should have. Why?
First, it was a depressing look at the past and future prospects for Ph.D.s in history.
Second, it was a depressing look at the past and future prospects for Ph.D.s in history from both the President and the Executive Director of the field’s most prestigious (read: old-white-male-cantankerous-curmudgeonly) professional organization.
Third, it was condescending as shit. The solution to the poor job market and the tightening of university budgets is to stop seeing that Plan B (the not-a-tenure track job) as a Plan B.
Fleshy Professional Avatar spent the weekend in Richmond, Virginia with colleagues and friends at the Association for the Study of African-American Life and History. I tagged along for the ride, made a minor appearance in time to introduce myself to amazing and dynamic public intellectuals like @NewBlackMan and @DrJamesPeterson. Then I dove right back in to life and work here in the DMV with the arrival of the Mobile Homecoming Project (@alexispauline and @juliawallace) for their week-long university residency. This was another event Fleshy Professional Avatar was signed up to do but I hung out in the wings, dipping in when Alexis and Julia referenced their trip to AMC 2011 and the Shawty Got Skillz workshop, taking a breath of peace when I saw @Mdotwrites and as I was introduced to another professor-cum-insurgent. And when I looked up, I turned around to find we’d formed a circle of womyn of color who do intense intellectual work and activism around saving our own lives in spaces that are almost universally hostile to everything we are and represent. And yet…there we were. Queering the space with our very own light energy, turning the room on its side and moving the group as a whole along a new wavelength of ultraviolet visibility.
For a moment, just long enough to breath in and out twice, I was able to be Kismet and Flesh at the same time. The two bodies overlapped and co-existed in time and space together.
But it was only a moment.
Diving deep into notes I made while sitting in an overseas reading room two years ago, I’m still surprised by how many roles people of African descent played during the period of the slave trade. We (although this is the time period before we were We) were slave traders and grain producers, pounders of millet, sailors, soldiers, wives, householders, and shipowners. And most of us were slaves.
That we were slaves did not mean that we couldn’t still occupy one of these other roles. We were still skilled in what we were skilled in and we were apprentices in what we weren’t. We were still mothers of the children we gave birth to and some we did not and godmothers to children we sponsored at the baptismal font. We still loved our lovers and we still participated in the merchant economy generated by slave trading and plantation slavery. Like bondage, bodies-as-commerce was not a way of life we could escape.
Even those of us who were free or freed–free African men and women, free people of color, freedmen and freedwomen–found our lives constrained by the political economy of Atlantic slaving, a capricious megalith too dangerous to ignore. Raced terminology marked our freedom as “of color” and somehow different from the freedom whites enjoyed and were assumed to enjoy.
Regardless, we were more than just slaves.
And we are more than criminals.