Archive for the ‘womanism’ Category

What Will Happen to Our Black Alma Mater(ere)?

Tuesday, March 17th, 2009

desegregated girlIt’s that time of year. When college admission envelopes arrive in the mail. It’s also that time of year when high school students are taking advantage of spring break by visiting college campuses with their church youth groups. Hoping to get a head start on deciding on the school of their choice. Thanks to a friend  in DC who agreed to take her in for the week, the teenager in my house is, as I type, on her way to visit Morgan State University in Baltimore. Yesterday she visited Hampton and Norfolk State. Tomorrow she visits Howard University (her first choice) and from there Georgetown University (her father’s choice). Her mother attended an Ivy-league white women’s college back in the 70s, but the daughter has decided she will not be denied the experience of  black homecomings, step shows, marching bands, black sororites, and standing in long registration lines at the beginning of the semester.

There’s lots of debate about whether Historical Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) have outlived their usefulness. Even in the best of times, historically black colleges are barely able to keep up. In hard economical times, many of them are operating on such bare bones budgets that they’re like the walking dead. With news earlier this year of Clark Atlanta laying off faculty and staff in the middle of the year, Spelman eliminating staff positions, and Morris Brown which has already lost of its accreditation struggling to pay its water bill, you wonder if going ahead and pulling the plug on the weaker schools is the kindest thing that can done for some of these schools.

black campusA few years back, black students from a certain HBCU in my city stood out on the streets with buckets in hand begging drivers for donations to pay the heat bill on campus so they could avoid freezing in the dorms.  Students shouldn’t have to worry  whether their dorm has heat.  They have financial worries of their own. Resources for students at HBCUs have shrunk dangerously. More than 60% of students at HBCUs rely upon Pell grants which typically go to students whose family income is less than $40,000 a year and other federally sponsored programs to get through college. Initial reports about the president-elect’s stimulus package suggest that President Obama knows the plight of HBCUs and has earmarked more than $15.6 billion for Pell grants which are crucial for the often low-income students of these institutions, many of whom are first generation college students. Unfortunately, contributions from black college graduates to their alma maters are never enough to keep the college afloat.

Should we simply let the economy weed out the weak(est) ones and try preserving the remaining strong black schools (e.g., Howard, Spelman, Morehouse, Hampton) for those students who want to attend and those who thrive best in a predominantly black college environments? Let’s face it: attrition and racism are not the only reason many of these schools are on their last leg. Many have resisted adjusting and adapting to modern times, and their reputation outside the African-American community has grown worse as the schools declined to open themselves to the sort of healthy criticism and public debate that can lead to growth.

My experience at a HBCU was not as a student, but as a faculty member. From 2003-2005 I served as William and Camille Cosby Visiting Professor in Humanities at Spelman College.  Those two years proved to be the best years of my teaching career. Prior to Spelman, all of my striving and thriving as an adult had been done in the white academy.

My first day on Spelman’s campus I thought I had died and gone to black woman heaven. Young black women in every hue and hair style, walking alone or in 2s, and 3s, strolling across campus with confidence and purpose, laughing, talking on their cell phones, or listening to their ipods. And then there was time I stepped off the elevator and before I could get the key into the door of my office my friend Dr. Gloria Wade Gayle, a righteous sister and someone I knew from years earlier, yelled from the other end of the hall,  “Renita, girl. Come join me for lunch. I’ve got some turkey wings.” She’d brought lunch from home and wanted to share it with me.

Turkey wings? Turkey wings? I tell you Reader, in all my 20 years of teaching on predominantly white campuses no one had ever invited me to a lunch that featured real food, a lunch that reeked of garlic and butter, and the sounds of women’s laughter.

Graduates of black colleges will tell you that their success comes from the supportive community they found in black schools. “I received one-on-one attention,” says one graduate I know, “It was a family atmosphere, where people wanted to know how you were doing.” This compared to the sink or swim attitude black student (and black faculty teaching at white institutions) often run up against at majority universities. Black colleges play a very important role in the lives of their students. The term “alma mater” means “nourishing mother (of studies)” which is precisely what these institutions have meant to many of their graduates.  Without their “nourishing mothers” (e.g., professors, administrators, kitchen and housekeeping staff) many of them  would never have finished school. They needed the nuturance and “tough love” they found there tbefore heading out into the real world.

When my appointment at Spelman ended in ‘05 the school invited me to come on board as a permanent member of the faculty.  But I declined. God had other plans for me.  Despite the many frustrations that come with teaching on a black college campus (and believe me, Reader, they are many!),  after two years on a black woman’s college campus it was impossible for me to return to the sterile, lifeless world of teaching at a predominantly white institution.  I couldn’t go back. Leaving the suckle of a black mother for a white….Nah.

A Womanist

Monday, March 10th, 2008


If a picture is worth a thousand words, the expression on this little girl’s face says it all.  She’s not impressed. She’s smart. She’s willful. She’s courageous. She questions authority. She acts grown. “Womanish” is how the women in my neighborhood would have described her. 

I wonder what the little brown girl was thinking as the President of the United States bent over and whispered in her ear.

"I’m Not A Feminist, But…"

Thursday, October 11th, 2007

I admit to having to resist the urge to snatch the mike from a woman and telling her to sit down when she starts a sentence with “I’m not a feminist, but…” It’s like saying “I don’t believe in equal pay for men and women, but…” or “I don’t believe that husbands should go to jail for murdering their wives, but…” And when church-going Christian women denounce feminism I catch myself chewing on my collar and counting to ten. They act as though women have always been bishops, priests, ministers, deacons, elders, trustees and have always held significant positions of power in the church. Conservative Christian women who scorn feminists and feminism as radical and worldly seem to have it in their heads that centuries of praying and fasting are what led to such things as women’s ministries in the church, Christian women mega-conferences and retreats, and clergy women gatherings. Women in the church have the women’s movement of the 70s and 80s to thank for many of the advances we’ve witnessed in recent years pertaining to women. It’s taken more than fasting and praying to get us to where we are.

There’s the well-behaved church woman who scoffs at the word “feminist.” And then there’s the young diva with the Ph.D. and the plunging neckline who has slept with multiple upon multiple partners (with a minimal damage to her reputation and health, thanks to feminism) who corners me in a meeting insisting that while she’s grateful for all the sacrifices feminists made in the past, the label “feminist” simply doesn’t suit her and her generation. Growl. “So, what word better describes for you and your generation your commitments?” I ask. Blank. Growl.

Let me pause here and make the colossal error of trying to define what a feminist is, knowing full well that there’s so much hypersensitivity to the term that the word starts fires whenever it’s brought up. Feminism is not about what you believe. Feminism is about what you do. Being a feminist is about being willing to suffer the consequences to speak out against the degradation of women, and being willing to fight for a woman’s right to autonomy and dignity. Feminism is a daily commitment to do your part to make the world a better place for women, and for the children and men they love.

We have the hell-raising antics of feminists to thank for the radical changes in laws and attitudes we’ve witnessed in the past 30 years in this country toward women. A woman’s right to her body, to decide whether and when she bears a child, a right to work, to fair wages or equal pay, to own property, to education, to serve in the military, to enter into legal contracts without a husband or father’s signature – women gained these rights in the last century as a result of the loud-mouth, militant, in-your-face, acting-out, strategizing, organizing, picketing, protesting, and lobbying efforts of feminists. Christianity has inspired lots of black men to become drum majors for social change (e.g., Absalom Jones, Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. Martin L. King, Jr. Al Sharpton), but Christianity has not done the same thing for black women. That’s probably because religion tames women, for the most part. It takes years of unlearning, and typically another kind of fire, for a church woman to be willing to turn over tables for what she believes.

I haven’t liked every feminist I’ve met, that’s for sure. I’m even prepared to admit that there are some consequences of the feminist movement that I and second wave feminists probably never foresaw (e.g., a draft that one day may involve my teenage daughter being hauled off to war, young black women’s choice to slither at the feet of gangsta rappers and shake their ample butts before the video camera as part of a woman’s right to bodily autonomy). And while I’m confessing, let me confess that I, along with lots of other black women, prefer the word “womanism” to feminism to describe black women’s activism because, as Alice Walker has pointed out, “womanist” derives out of black folk culture. Nevertheless, I am not willing to sit idly by and watch right wing conservatives in and out of the church turn “feminism” into a dirty word. I have to speak up for “feminism” because, to quote James Baldwin in his letter to Angela Davis in 1971 while she sat in prison awaiting the government’s trial against her, “If we know, then we must fight for your life as though it were our own…. For if they take you in the morning, they will be coming for us that night.”

It’s crazy I know, but I’ve spent my life trying to reconcile these two great passions of mine, my religious faith and my feminist commitments. More often I’ve had to content myself with shuttling back and forth between the two, knowing full well that each one is jealous of the other. Christians want to know why I risk the church’s ire by identifying myself so passionately with women’s causes. My feminist friends want to know, given all that I know, why in the hell don’t I just walk away from Christianity? Both make good points.

Neither understands that I need the other to do what I do for it. It’s what the black church and Christian faith have taught me about justice, liberation, and freedom that fuels my feminism. And it’s my lifelong commitment to women and underdogs in general that keeps me pulling out my slingshot and aiming at the church as often as I can.

One thing is for sure, as the saying goes, well-behaved women do not change history.

Black Women Writers: As Purple is To Lavender

Tuesday, June 12th, 2007

Standing in the checkout lane at Wild Oats supermarket a couple months ago I was sure I felt a pair of eyes on me. I turned to stare into a face that brought back a flood of memories. The poet and novelist Alice Walker peered out at me from the cover of a Shambhala Sun magazine. I paused to consider the wizened face of the woman on the magazine, a woman whose writings made an indelible impression on me when I was a young woman in my 20s and 30s. “If Alice Walker is older, then so am I,” I thought to myself. I snatched the magazine up and laid it on the counter with my other purchases.

There was a time when I read Alice Walker’s writings like some people read the book of Psalms. Most of America know Walker for her commercially successful novel, The Color Purple, but those of us who have been following her for a long time know her as a talented poet and essayist as well. Revolutionary Petunias, her second book of poems, was a gift to me which I still cherish. But it was Walker’s moving essays, especially those in Ms. magazine in the 70s and 80s, that transformed me into an acolyte. They filled a void back then among feminists writings about gender and culture. She made readers see the common, everyday survival of black women as more than laudatory, but acts of triumph and mystery. Her 1974 essay “In Search of Our Mothers’ Garden” about the survival of black women’s creative genius is now a classic and required reading in women and gender studies classes today.

My colleagues and I in the academy have Walker to thank for proposing “womanist,” a term deriving from southern black folk culture, as an alternative to “feminist” to distinguish headstrong, justice loving black women from other women advocating for women’s rights. “Womanist is to feminist as purple is to lavender” wrote Walker.

It would be wrong to give the impression, however, that Alice Walker was the first or only black woman writing with fire in her eyes back then. History has a way of focusing on the solitary individual, the solo event, the singular tragedy, and making it appear as though people and things arise out of nothingness. The truth is more complex: individuals are products of their contexts and events are shaped by the movements that give rise to them.

Alice Walker was among a tidal wave of creative, artistic black women writing in unprecedented numbers in the 70s and 80s: Toni Cade Bambara, June Jordan, Ntozake Shange, Audre Lorde, Toni Morrison, Gayle Jones, Paule Marshall, Barbara Smith, Mary Helen Washington, etc. Together their writings inspired young women like me to imagine ourselves as writers too one day.

They were fiery products of the 60s freedom movements, although it would take the women’s movement of the 70s and 80s for their artistry and autonomy to come together.

My numerous moves have resulted in my losing many of the first editions books I bought back then. But the jacket covers of many remain filed on a hard drive in my mind: Sula, The Black Woman: An Anthology, In Love and In Trouble, Black-Eyed Susans, Corregidora, All the Women are White, All The Men are Black, But Some of Us Are Brave. After a long, soul-numbing day at work in the financial markets of Wall Street it was not unusual for me to stay up all night reading. I’d stumble into work the next morning blurry-eyed, but quietly rescued from the abyss by women writers who reminded me of the sacred character of black women’s survival.

It’s time for me to get back into the habit of reading fiction. I am tired of reality. Today I stop by the black book section of a local book store and scan the shelf for the book my new book club is reading this month. Multiples shelves of obnoxiously colorful, shiny covers, featuring sepia-colored woman with big butts and plenty of cleavage (and attitude) are before me. Men in wife beater shirts in various poses lurk in the background. Words are misspelled, and key words reappear in the title of this genre of books known as ghetto fiction: “candy,” “poppin’,” “nasty,” “grimey,” “hustla,” “‘hood,” “gangsta” and “ghetto.” Ghetto fiction is everywhere. You can’t pass a street vendor, beauty salon, the African-American section of a chain bookstore, or even an independent black bookstore without tripping all over it. No question ghetto fiction has black people who never heard of Alice Walker or Zora Neal Hurston reading (blacks spent a near $300 million on books in 2006). Thongs on Fire is one of the titles.

On second thought, perhaps I”ll just renew my library card. In the meantime, post a comment here on the blog on a good novel you’ve read that I should pick up.