Understanding Memory, Race, and Writing with Black Female College Students' Texts
“I Carry the Eyes of Ida B. Wells”:Understanding Memory, Race, andWriting with Black Female College Students Texts Carmen Kynard, Ph.D.
Overview Using Patricia Hill Collins’ notion of criticalMethods: This presentation draws praxis, I will present this study as a series of oral from a current manuscript-in- narratives to alternatively politicize issues of progress that looks at how female methodology and textual arrangement in college students of African research about black women (Couter and descent construct themselves as Smith, Barone). This textual process is, thus, a social activists and literate beings conscious attempt to portray experience and in the struggle for their own right to flow “past the barriers” (Royster) emotion, question normative positions, and and reconstitute themselves. The offer a critical space for the interpretation of study challenges still dominant black women’s literate lives in the academy understandings of writing, rhetoric, (Denzin). I call this subject-driven and knowledge as deracialized narrative analysis. and degendered phenomena. Using a critical In a Geertzian sense then, narrative as the form discursive analysis of black women’s multiple articulations of my telling means that I am conscious of the (Chouliaraki and Fairclough, ways that I use stories to understand and Fairclough, Gee), I make the present the lives and literacies of black women assumption that language plays a where the cultural roles of black female crucial role in maintaining and storytellers enact critical inquiry (Richardson, creating social inequalities (Luke) Gonick and Hladki). and that black women continually negotiate and reconfigure this social world.
Narrative I: Set It Off… Black female college students write and carve out their literate beings in a context that often looks no different from what Phyllis Wheatley faced when white colonists found it difficult to believe that she had written her own poetry. She had to defend her authorship in a Boston court in 1772 to a group that included the then governor of Massachusetts. It was only when she provided “proof” that they signed an attestation to her authorship, which was included in her Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral published in 1773. While the adage that history repeats itself is much too simple to capture social complexities under race and gender in the United States, a historically situated understanding traced back to the first book of poetry published by a black woman, Phillis Wheatley, does offer critical understanding of the continuum of barriers imposed on black women’s literate possibilities.
Narrative II: “Reminisce on the Love We Had” (Methods)What started as a way to digitize overflowing file cabinets turned into this study. I checked the themes that I thought I was seeing against 14 years of gradebooks where I make notes on every topic that a student chooses (a strategy that I use to remember what texts to suggest for student research projects). I checked all of that against discussion forums in my online course systems.Four, dominant themes emerged in black female college students’ writing. I settled on 20 students’ essays for each theme that met the following criteria: 1) each essay was shared in a public forum; 2) each essay went through multiple revisions; and 3) each essay was at least 500 words long. I then interviewed the authors of each of these essays, black women who now work in all sectors, and asked them to (re)situate the politics of the essay that I still had as well as ask their permission to use the essay in this study.
Narrative III: Mothers and Othermothers/Daughters and OtherdaughtersThis theme about mothers, othermothers, daughters, and otherdaughters is the second, most saturated theme. These are writings about black motherhood where young black women either chronicle the lives and experiences of their own mothers and othermothers or are mothers themselves chronicling their own stories.I am particularly inspired by Susan Willis’s argument that interest in mothers’ and grandmothers’ generations has given black female novelists access to the past denied them. For my political purposes, I am most interested in the ways that Black motherhood, child-bearing, and child- raising have represented racialized, cultural meanings in the United States that black female college writers often take on as central to the intellectual work of understanding America and themselves in it during their college years.
Mamie Till as Embodied MetaphorFor this group of women, the ancestral legacy is Mamie Till, mother of Emmit Till who was murdered in 1955. Mamie Till left Till’s casket open for everyone to see, for America to see what it had done; it was not her terror to witness alone, it was a pain that belonged to Black communities and it was the design of white America. When I think of the pain and ripping-apart-of-her- soul that Mamie Till went through, I must question: how could we, as Black women in the academy, ever dare to bow down, get scared, backtrack, cower, second-guess, or back away from naming, showing, and screaming out loud when white racism comes for us? It is this rhetorical awareness, as embodied by Mamie Till, that I connect to the women writers in this theme.
Narrative IV: “I Carry the Eyes…” The third theme is Street Consciousness for/in the Academy where black female writers in college writing classrooms use language as a way to deliberately align themselves with the struggles of working- class/working poor black communities. These are women of African descent who explicitly write about and problematize, based on their own lived and personal experiences, what they see as the most pressing social issues facing their fictive kin in places that they outrightly name “the hood,” “the ghetto,” “slum(s),” “the block,” “the streets,” “the co’ner,” or “the projects.”
Harriet Tubman as Embodied MetaphorI situate Harriet Tubman as the gravitational, ancestral force for these women. Tubman was said to always carry a pistol with her on her trips to the south where she led other slaves North to the Promised Land. That pistol was a warning for any slave who got scared and wanted to leave the “freedom train” and go back to the plantation. A return to the plantation was a danger to the rest of the group and the very functioning of the Underground Railroad and so it was safer to shoot the naysayer/deserter because as Tubman was said to exclaim: “Dead men tell no tales.” These women writers claim full, romantic responsibility for promoting black unity and also always embrace the reality and possibility that some will forego the well-being of the black masses--- and be let go.
Narrative V: Transmigratory IdentitiesFor Carole Boyce-Davies, unique black female identities are formed in movement for the creation of transnational subjectivities. Here the fight against colonization has distinct discursive functions for Black female students with Pan-African visions.Davies asks that we use and understand migratory subjectivity to fully situate the work of someone like Claudia Jones: the only Black female communist tried in the United States, sentenced for crimes against the U.S., incarcerated, and deported in 1955; she then became founder of London carnival and one of the first black newspapers in London.I see migratory subjectivity and the work of someone like Claudia Jones as a trajectory in which to locate students’ writing in this final theme. Here the fight against and critique of colonization--- both internally and externally--- have distinct discursive functions for black women with a Pan-African vision. Many of these women do not intend to stay here in the U.S. but the fight against oppression here is linked to oppression in their home countries and the rest of the African Diaspora.
Narrative VI: Colorism& Caste Systems The theme examined most frequently by my black female college students is Color/Hair/Body as Racial Caste System: a racialized hierarchy that maps out good hair, bad hair, light skin, dark skin--- an arsenal of body politics that function as societal discourses that divide, differentiate, and lead to unjust social practices felt most strongly by black women. I link these women’s writings to bell hooks in the ways that hooks continually shows that racial, gendered issues related to colorism are cultural politics, not individual experiences.