Being a Backbone: Black, Brilliant, and Bruised

My reflection is inspired by two Black women: Ntozake Shange and Nikki Giovanni.   Ntozake, who passed away last month, was known for her play, “for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf” (1976) – the title reflected in this quote from the play: “And this is for Colored girls who have considered suicide, but are moving to the ends of their own rainbows.”

I am one of those colored girls who considered suicide, but am now moving to the ends of a rainbow that cannot be seen, but for which I hope. Like Ntozake, “I write for young girls of color, for girls who don’t even exist yet, so that there is something there for them when they arrive. I can only change how they live, not how they think.”

Nikki reminds me constantly of this.  In another post, I speak about the impact of her work on my life: Nikki always challenges — calls things as they are; speaks truth without fear.   She forces us to think about race, integration, rape, racism, death, children’s stories, life outside of Earth.  Her mind is brilliant.  Her ability to use words is magical.  With her words, she tells stories, yet her stories are words that are woven together with such mastery that it is like following a path that you don’t’ know where she taking you, but you are willing to keep walking along side, knowing that she is probably taking you that that rainbow for which we so earnestly seek.  She tells us we must use our words and that everything is a narrative.

This week at Virginia Tech, Nikki did a HokieTalk.  Her brilliance shone like the stars of the universe that she challenges us to think about.  She talked about the injustice done to Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer, and the same with Little Red Riding Hood and blaming the young girl for the death of her grandmother.  She cautions us to think about what we tell our children in children’s stories.

She talked about segregation and the necessity of integration for she is 75 years old and remembers the fight for integration, the marches, and those – both White and Black – who were killed, beaten, lynched.  She talked about having breast cancer and mastectomies and the need for love and reaffirmation.  She talked about childbirth and she talked about death.  She talked about the kindness of people from Appalachia, even in the midst of the racism that also exists.  I’m grateful for the blessing she provides to so many —  for her brutal honesty, yet wit and wisdom.  I feel like she not only knows the struggles of Black women — she knows the struggles of humanity.  She knows we need to laugh, to love, and also to cry.  When the talk was all over, I think we all felt that we should probably smile more and hug our White/Black/Brown brothers and sisters, even if not kin, but at least in the spirit of kinship.

Nikki and Ntozake.  Black women writers who challenge the status quo; who call a thing what it is; who challenge us to do the same.  Lately, the question on my spirit and mind is: “What does it mean to be a Black woman in America, broadly, but the Academy, specifically?”  This esteemed and privileged “academy” of higher education is a space and place in America created for and initially reserved for the wealthy and the White and the male.

In so many places, still at Virginia Tech, in the Academy, I am the only Black woman in the room.  In these spaces and places, often receptions, events, cocktail hours, large gatherings, and places of celebration, I often feel compelled to engage in conversations and reflections with myself.  They go something like this:

“Girl, whatcha doing here?  Girl, don’t cha be by yourself; Girl, find yourself somebody to talk to; You sure you ain’t see no other person of color?  Girl, don’t be caught lookin’ like you ain’t got no friends; Girl, don’t ya stand by the food all the time; Girl, don’t keep hanging around the drink table; Girl, look like you belong, Girl, Girl, Girl.”

And, so me and Girl, we get ourselves together, and we mingle, network, and socialize. Yet me and Girl know that we in a space and place not meant for us, and where we are essentially invisible or hypervisible.  I know that this experience is not limited to the academy and it is not limited to me.  This experience is almost an every day experience for so many women of color in America.

In A Black Woman’s Journey from Cotton Picking to College Professor:  Lessons about Race, Class, and Gender in America, my mother wrote about the loneliness of the academy.  Yet, she also wrote that she needed to share her story so that she could be the back upon which others could climb.  She wanted to be the back for others.  And to be another’s back, you have to not only have a strong backbone, but also a strong core.   It requires strength both externally and internally.  Not many of us can be the backbone for another, especially one who may be burdened down and bruised.

Bruised.  Many of us in America, who are Black, are also brilliant, and bruised.  Bruised.  Bruising discolors the skin; leaves a mark; ruptures blood vessels.  The African-American experience in America has left bruises — permanent marks, deep in our psyche.  And the bruises have impacted all who call themselves Americans; for you cannot be in America and not impacted by a bruising environment, a bruising culture, and a bruising ideology that has been structured and designed to perpetuate inferiority, marginalization, disenfranchisement, and inhumanity, based merely upon particular markers of identity.

As Americans, we are bruised.  Yet, some of us, people of color, in particular, carry almost ironically and symbolically on our skins a bruising and a marking.  A permanence of being branded, as they do cattle, as they did enslaved people, to mark them, to set them apart, permanently — a deliberate bruise and bruising.  We are still branded for society brands us unconsciously and sometimes almost imperceptible with marks that just seem to appear, and leave us wondering when we were wounded.

So, those of us wounded, branded, yet Black, of color, and brilliant, what is our path to actualize our potential?  What is the path of the population, of humanity — to be physicists, writers, poets, social workers, scientists, engineers, doctors, lawyers, nurses, journalists, teachers, painters, artists?

Our paths must be through education, yet education is not equal, equitable, or empowering.  In fact, public education, tied to tax dollars, is often inequitable for those who are poor, of color, with different abilities, with marginalized identities. So, how do we as a people climb up from oppression, from poverty, from disparate education? What do we do?

We —  who have been privileged to become educated enough and to have access and influence — must  master the words, the language, the ideas, and the actions to address, unseat, disrupt, fight against the bruising:  the racism, sexism, discrimination, and the bias.  As Nikki said, we have to use our words, and as my mama said, we who are in the academy must be the backs for others.   There is no choice.

We must be the backs for those who are marginalized, disempowered, disenfranchised, discouraged, and dejected in spaces and places that were never created for them or for us.   Those of us who have become educated and have access to tables and rooms and seats of influence and power and authority have to be that voice for others. We have to disprove stereotypes, work at an extraordinary level of excellence; work at an extraordinary pace; work extraordinarily hard.  We must be  unrelentingly fiercely dedicated to the cause, with an intensity that is unparalled and unimaginable.

In Journeys of Social Justice: Women of Color Presidents in the Academy, my co-editor, Johanna Maes and I share the journeys of women of color who have become college presidents. They have decided to be backbones.  Their journeys are challenging, complicated, and often lonely.  But, they recognize that they must pick up the mantle, steer the ship, and document the unchartered territory for others.  They must pave the roads, make a way.  They must be the back.

For who else will create a path for those who are Black (of color), brilliant, and bruised? Who will create a path for a people carrying centuries of trauma, separated from homeland, separated from culture, separated from Gods, separated from knowledge of self? Who will create a path for the masses of humanity who seek the light of knowledge?

And painfully, we must acknowledge that those who are bruised often bruise others.  Yes, so women of color bruise other women of color.   Those bruises are often the most painful because our expectations are of shared struggle; shared understanding; shared experience, yet that commonality is often insufficient to create unity.

Yet, we must fight on, sometimes alone, sometimes in community.  Those of us who are here, who are in spaces and places not designed for us, yet we are here, must, therefore, become the backs upon which others climb.  For we who are here, have survived, have stiffened our back bones, and have prepared them for use by the next generation.

Women of color, however, must not be the only backbones.  Allies, White women, White men, Men of Color, must  shoulder and share the load, so that our backs don’t break.  We – Black women — must not be, as Zora Neale Hurston said In Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937), “the mules of the world”,  carrying “the load that white men, white women and black men refuse to carry; we do the work no one wants to do, without praise or thanks.” Elsa Char´ety

In the meantime, me and Girl have to keep on so like Ntosake “When I die, I will not be guilty of having left a generation of girls behind thinking that anyone can tend to their emotional health other than themselves.”

So, somebody, somebody, somebody, “somebody/ anybody sing a black girl’s song bring her out to know herself to know you but sing her rhythms carin/ struggle/ hard times sing her song of life she’s been dead so long closed in silence so long she doesn’t know the sound of her own voice her infinite beauty she’s half-notes scattered without rhythm/ no tune sing her sighs sing the song of her possibilities sing a righteous gospel let her be born let her be born & handled warmly.” – Ntozake Shange

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