Vanderbilt University: Reflections on Race and Gender in America
I’m reflecting on Nashville and Vanderbilt. Seeing friends, laughing,
eating soul food for breakfast and oxtail for dinner,
reminiscing on my life almost 25 years ago.
I spent some quiet time at Kirkland Hall (the main administrative building) at Vanderbilt – so stately, grand, intimidating, full of portraits of powerful and rich men. Men who founded and sustained the university, to whom I must owe some debt of gratitude, even if the institution wasn’t founded for me. As I walk around, I’m intrigued to read, afresh, even though I worked in the building for 8 years, the portraits.
and his wife, named Frank. What a life she must have led, with a man’s name, in the mid-1800s! I can’t even imagine…
And of course, the strange and scary gargoyle — welcoming visitors, welcoming me…
I was invited back to Vanderbilt to share lessons from “A Black Woman’s Journey from Cotton Picking to College Professor: Lessons about Race, Class, and Gender in America.”
and to speak at two different events this past week: the lunch keynote on “50 years of struggle from Martin Luther King to Black Lives Matter”
and a panel on “Women and Academic Leadership” celebrating the 40th anniversary of the Women’s Center at Vanderbilt.
My days were full of conversations with colleagues, students, and hopefully new friends at Vanderbilt. I am grateful for my time there this week.
An edited portion of my keynote is below:
The joint degree program at Vanderbilt — allowing me to pursue a law degree and PhD in Sociology — changed my life, showing me connections between and across disciplines, and points of intersection around race, class, gender, and the law. It provided me with ways of thinking, but more importantly tools – vocabulary, words, and language that allowed and enabled me channel an anger, a rage, a deep pain, and an almost unspeakable trauma caused by the mere experience of being a Black woman in America. Vanderbilt gave me the words and tools and I am deeply grateful.
As a young child, I only knew one word. And that word was “system.”
I heard that word all my life from my parents. They told me that there was a “system” that I had to fight. They made me watch Roots, which came out as a TV series when I was a young child. It was an experience that traumatized me for years, searing in my mind and imagination the whippings and beatings, and Cicely Tyson as Black woman fighting for humanity. My parents told me that because of the system, I had to work twice as hard and be twice as good, and even then, it would be tough. Because of the system, I had to be fierce, determined, tough, and persistent. As a child, I didn’t know why they seemed so intent on socializing me into understanding this strange system that seemed unfair and unjust. I didn’t know until I came to Vanderbilt that it was the system that bell hooks calls “the imperialist White supremacist capitalist patriarchy.” It was here at Vanderbilt that I was introduced to Patricia Hill Collins, and Black Feminist Thought and I began to understand the system and its relationship to power as a hegemonic force legitimating and perpetuating domination and oppression. It was here at Vanderbilt that I began to learn about Critical Race and Critical Race Feminism scholarship.
The intellectual classroom experience provided a way to understand and explain my own daily life and the operation of the system in my life, as a lawyer, in my work in higher education, as a faculty member, as a mother, as a daughter, and as a wife. It was the “no’s”, the closed doors, the salary disparities, the “you can’t,” and the “I won’t let you.” It was the stop signs and red lights. It was the micro and macro aggressions in meetings. It was emails of disrespect. It was the advancement of lesser qualified White men and women without searches. It was the exclusion from opportunities and lack of mentoring. It was very different pay and salary despite being the only one in the office at 7 am and the only one staying after 5. It was having to always fight for salary equity. It was being the last person to have my hand shaken during introductions; it was having my hand not even shaken at all. It was watching the school system’s treatment of my children; it was watching the prison system’s operations; it was being horrified at the operation of the healthcare system and long-term care facilities with my parents; it was being confounded by patriarchy and homophobia in places of worship. It was the very painful recognition that we, as women, as women of color, as people of color, as Black men and women, in America, are in places where we are not meant to be, and when we are in those spaces, we are not welcomed, we are not included, we are not valued, we are not appreciated.
Today, as part of our thinking about Black Lives Matter and MLK, my theme is “In Spite of It All.” What should we do – those of us who care — allies, advocates, activists, and ambassadors? Those of us who care must first learn the history, the words, the language, and the tools to talk about the system, and then we must commit publicly, privately, courageously, relentlessly, persistently, and unyieldingly to dismantling the system in all its manifestations to create the world envisioned by Martin Luther King.
This will require an immense level of courage, and determination, that sometimes I am not sure we have. It is the same courage, fearlessness that led men and woman and children during the Civil Rights Movement to march without weapons, facing dogs, and guns, and water hoses, to demonstrate their humanity, and to demand the rights associated with being Americans. The courage was generated largely by the power of Martin Luther King’s words and voice and charismatic leadership. We must not underestimate the power of voice and leadership, especially if we recognize that leadership is the ability to persuade others to actions with words.
The system understands the power of voice, and so seeks to silence dissenters, and to limit free speech, freedom of the press. The hegemonic world in which we live has socialized silence. I think how often women, people of color, advocates, and allies are silent, unable or unwilling to speak. I have come to truly believe and understand Patricia Williams’ reference to “spirit-murdering impact of silence and silencing.” Audre Lorde writes about the “effects of silencing on the silenced” in an essay called The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action. Words have energy and power. Angela Gilmore, a Black woman law professor, said, “There are still sometimes when I am silent, most often because I am afraid, sometimes justifiably, sometimes not. Yet usually I do not achieve anything as a result of my silence. Silence does not cause the fear to disappear. Silence does not make me feel more secure. Silence does not dispel ignorance.”
I believe that we must refuse to be silent and silenced. Fighting against the silence is a means of survival and also a radical act of courage because the system polices our thoughts and there are consequences for our words. Jemelle Hill, a Black woman sports broadcaster, is a prime example. – silenced and sanctioned by ESPN – for speaking about racism and the NFL. Serena – policed for her words, for demanding, as so many of us need and want to say: “Tell me you’re sorry.” But the world does not apologize for its racism, its sexism, its oppression.
Yet, the perilousness of our existence as marginalized people demands that we continue to speak, to voice our concerns and become more courageous. This is a courage that I encourage others to have, even as I myself work on stiffening my own backbone. Often when I speak, it is still with apprehension and anxiety, even as a full professor and vice president, a credential which should be and is a shield for so many who are White, both male and female, to say whatever they please whenever they want.
Why is this writing so important? We know that the mere act of writing and speaking for marginalized groups, especially women of color is a social justice act. That’s the power of the Me Too movement. Women speaking up. Yet, we must realize the difference in power from White privileged women of wealth who can speak and say MeToo, and absence of a platform for women of color to say MeToo. For when Anita Hill, simply said, Me, not Me,Too, just Me, no one, no one listened, stood by her, validated her. No ministers, no persons of the cloth, no sororities, no civil rights organizations, no women’s organizations. The world allowed her, as a Black woman, in the most powerful forum in the world, the All-White Male Senate, to stand alone. We, often, still, stand alone, silently.
Black women often not only stand alone, they, too, die alone. Although much of America knows the names of Black men killed by police, very few know the names of Black women and Black transgender women killed, harassed, and arrested across the United States, like Sandra, Charleena, Shantee, and Dejanay. And so, we have #SayHerName — a hashtag and movement, demanding speech, a calling out, a recognition of Black women, that Black Women’s Lives Matter, because so often we speak of Black Lives Matter, we think only of Black men and boys. My dissertation, called Where are the Black Girls, documented the exclusion of Black females from the social and legal discourse on single-sex schools for Black males in Detroit. That dissertation, finished in 1997, almost 20 years ago, is indicative of the exclusion that continues in the context of debates about race in America, even within the Black community.
And so, we need movements. Movements are like earthquakes, shifting tectonic plates. Shifts that create change. Successful movements move people, and motivate normally agnostic, ambivalent, apathetic masses to action for a moral cause. Movements are about our morals and values as a nation, as a people. And ultimately, America must be held accountable. Our words, and our voice, and actions, create, accountability for ourselves, for others, for America, and for the world. We must continue, like Mildred, in a Black Woman’s Journey, like so many of us in America, in spite of it all.