It is only now, at the end of two and a half years of graduate study, that I am able to realize that I have been understanding myself and my work in terms of lack. That constant negation, that assumption of my starting point being a place of denial has found its way into most of my projects, my blog posts, my teaching, my conversations. Consider the following examples:
I assemble a syllabus for my writing class made of texts by mostly queer Black women and women of color because “in all your other classes, a white canon is being forced on you and I’ve had enough.”
I draw up a reading list about Black girlhood that begins with a statement about how Black girls are denied humanity and girlhood very early in their lives, from the time they are punished more harshly and often than other children, to child marriage and dangerous labor conditions, and one more kind of violence after another. Why is that my starting point?
I assume that academia is an unending loop of hazing and delayed (or even deferred) rewards for one’s work. In this context, to “pay one’s dues,” seems to mean that one must accept that this is all one is worth, long hours and low hourly wages, until one gains the right credentials and social capital. I have internalized this to the point where I often feel disempowered within the walls of this academic institution, and compelled to sit painfully in my silence.
I am attempting to work towards a (sustainable) life as a writer, but have already concluded that such a life will be impossible, so that I would be better off seeking full-time employment in higher ed or publishing with my own writing somewhere in the periphery.
The premise of our syllabus project relies on the erasure of Black women’s intellectual and artistic contributions, as much as we try to push back against that implication. Considering that there is a vast network of artists and individuals both in Boston and elsewhere who continue to remember and honor Elma Lewis today, what does it mean for us to align her with such a project?
Borrowing Alice Walker’s womanist framework for recovering the stories and art of “our mothers,” I ask, what do we hope to find in the “garden” that Elma Lewis has cultivated, through the institutions she established, as well as her own scholarly writings? How might we ensure that we share a narrative about her that she would be proud of, one that uses the frames she built and left for us to understand her work? Additionally, what will we do to ensure that we are not co-opting narratives around Elma Lewis and the Boston Black community that loved and continues to love her?
At a Simmons College symposium in 1971, Elma Lewis presented a position paper entitled “Black Studies and the Community” she writes,
“…the establishment of a separate discipline labeled Black Studies must of necessity have built in obsolescence. The goal must be to rewrite the history, art, sociological and other curricula so that the black man is written in with the same intensity with which he was written out” (Lewis 5).
To avoid drawing on this citation without acknowledging the context within which Elma Lewis made this statement, I must also add that her paper also includes an emphasis on an understanding of “the Black community” as a body of people and cultural production spanning a global diaspora. She also stresses the necessity for Black Studies programs to center and come from within spaces where Black people live, rather than confined behind academic barriers.
Still, there is an aspect of this necessary “obsolescence” of Black studies that scares me a little, perhaps because I can’t imagine a reality in which I don’t have the sanctuary of spaces that focus specifically on Black people and our creative work. From bell hooks’ chapter “Revolutionary Black Women: Making Ourselves Subject” in her book Black Looks: Race and Representation, I might argue (against myself) that I am subscribing to “essentialist notions of black female identity” (hooks 58) and blackness in general as the map for how I move around the world, and further that my understanding of myself and my subjectivity centers on lack and oppression, rather than wholeness and possibility.
It feels ironic to note that there is a small part of me that is terrified of the future we are supposed to be working towards as Black feminists, one where people’s subject position isn’t used as justification for our continued marginalization. hooks makes reference to Audre Lorde’s work as she writes,
“Offering strategies black women might use to promote greater regard and respect, [Lorde] says that ‘black women must love ourselves.’ Loving ourselves begins with understanding the forces that have produced whatever hostility toward blackness and femaleness that is felt, but it also means learning new ways to think about ourselves” (hooks 58).
I have reached the point of my dreaming out loud where I usually begin to grow muddled and unsure of how to proceed. Admitting this also feels like an easy escape route to avoid making a stronger conclusion, or even one that simply poses more questions. What I am able to say with some level of confidence is that part of my process of “learning new ways” to understand myself involves learning new ways to engage with “our mothers” who have created and written before us, without reinscribing and perpetuating the violence that allows academic structures (like the one within which we find ourselves) to continue to stand.
I am also learning that I am not lacking or broken, but rather made of plenty, and deserving of wholeness.
edited on Monday 4/2/2018 to add:
I’ve spent the two weeks since publishing this post fixated on Elma Lewis’ assertion about the necessity of a “built-in obsolescence” for any Black Studies program. In trying to better understand the “re-writing” project she describes, I have been able to identify why I find this proposition so unsettling.
I turn to Michelle Cliff, who described her own project as well as that of other postcolonial writers in the following terms; “undermining the oppressor’s language and co-opting, or corrupting, his style, and turning it to our purpose.” I turn again to Toni Morrison, who warns against the compulsion to refute racism by continuously explaining and proving one’s humanity to an establishment that denies us that humanity. I turn also to writers like Bessie Head, Gloria Naylor, and more recently, Jesmyn Ward, who have created their own universes in which Black people are their primary concern.
It isn’t necessarily the case that white supremacy doesn’t exist in these written worlds, or even that it is only addressed tangentially. Rather, these writers do not set out to explain Black humanity, nor do they internalize messages about supposed Black inferiority. Their work operates on the premise that Black people can and do build their own worlds to inhabit, with no need to force our way into canons and spaces that have as their foundation our erasure and our death. We are *not* negations, and do not have to write ourselves into a history we are already a part of. Rather, we are writing towards ourselves and our expansive futures.
Cliff, Michelle. “Journey into Speech.” If I Could Write This in Fire, University of Minnesota Press, 2008, pp. vii-xi.
Lewis, Elma. Black Studies and the Community. Simmons College Symposium, January 1971, Boston. Unpublished conference paper. Northeastern University Archives and Special Collections, Boston, 2017. Print.
hooks, bell. “Revolutionary Black Women: Making Ourselves Subject.” Black Looks: Race and Representation, South End Press, 1992, pp. 41-60.
Walker, Alice. “In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens.” In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens: Womanist Prose, The Women’s Press, 1984, pp. 231-244.
Zoë Gadegbeku is the Communications Manager for the Elma Lewis Center. She blogs at shewhowritesreality.com