Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Keynote: West Chester University Women of Color Day Luncheon

"There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you." Maya Angelou

Thank you all for having me. How many of you have heard of Fannie Lou Hamer? For this Women's History Month, she is the woman I am honoring and reflecting on throughout this month and so I am going to begin by sharing some her story, bringing her into this space with us. This is a speech she gave at the 1964 Democratic National Convention: 

 "Mr. Chairman, and to the Credentials Committee, my name is Mrs. Fannie Lou Hamer, and I live at 626 East Lafayette Street, Ruleville, Mississippi, Sunflower County, the home of Senator James O. Eastland, and Senator Stennis.
It was the 31st of August in 1962 that eighteen of us traveled twenty-six miles to the county courthouse in Indianola to try to register to become first-class citizens.
We was met in Indianola by policemen, Highway Patrolmen, and they only allowed two of us in to take the literacy test at the time. After we had taken this test and started back to Ruleville, we was held up by the City Police and the State Highway Patrolmen and carried back to Indianola where the bus driver was charged that day with driving a bus the wrong color.
After we paid the fine among us, we continued on to Ruleville, and Reverend Jeff Sunny carried me four miles in the rural area where I had worked as a timekeeper and sharecropper for eighteen years. I was met there by my children, who told me that the plantation owner was angry because I had gone down to try to register.
After they told me, my husband came, and said the plantation owner was raising Cain because I had tried to register. Before he quit talking the plantation owner came and said, "Fannie Lou, do you know - did Pap tell you what I said?"
And I said, "Yes, sir."
He said, "Well I mean that." He said, "If you don't go down and withdraw your registration, you will have to leave." Said, "Then if you go down and withdraw," said, "you still might have to go because we are not ready for that in Mississippi."
And I addressed him and told him and said, "I didn't try to register for you. I tried to register for myself."
I had to leave that same night.
On the 10th of September 1962, sixteen bullets was fired into the home of Mr. and Mrs. Robert Tucker for me. That same night two girls were shot in Ruleville, Mississippi. Also Mr. Joe McDonald's house was shot in.
And June the 9th, 1963, I had attended a voter registration workshop; was returning back to Mississippi. Ten of us was traveling by the Continental Trailway bus. When we got to Winona, Mississippi, which is Montgomery County, four of the people got off to use the washroom, and two of the people - to use the restaurant - two of the people wanted to use the washroom.
The four people that had gone in to use the restaurant was ordered out. During this time I was on the bus. But when I looked through the window and saw they had rushed out I got off of the bus to see what had happened. And one of the ladies said, "It was a State Highway Patrolman and a Chief of Police ordered us out."
I got back on the bus and one of the persons had used the washroom got back on the bus, too.
As soon as I was seated on the bus, I saw when they began to get the five people in a highway patrolman's car. I stepped off of the bus to see what was happening and somebody screamed from the car that the five workers was in and said, "Get that one there." When I went to get in the car, when the man told me I was under arrest, he kicked me.
I was carried to the county jail and put in the booking room. They left some of the people in the booking room and began to place us in cells. I was placed in a cell with a young woman called Miss Ivesta Simpson. After I was placed in the cell I began to hear sounds of licks and screams, I could hear the sounds of licks and horrible screams. And I could hear somebody say, "Can you say, 'yes, sir,' nigger? Can you say 'yes, sir'?"
And they would say other horrible names.
She would say, "Yes, I can say 'yes, sir.'"
"So, well, say it."
She said, "I don't know you well enough."
They beat her, I don't know how long. And after a while she began to pray, and asked God to have mercy on those people.
And it wasn't too long before three white men came to my cell. One of these men was a State Highway Patrolman and he asked me where I was from. I told him Ruleville and he said, "We are going to check this."
They left my cell and it wasn't too long before they came back. He said, "You are from Ruleville all right," and he used a curse word. And he said, "We are going to make you wish you was dead."
I was carried out of that cell into another cell where they had two Negro prisoners. The State Highway Patrolmen ordered the first Negro to take the blackjack.
The first Negro prisoner ordered me, by orders from the State Highway Patrolman, for me to lay down on a bunk bed on my face.
I laid on my face and the first Negro began to beat. I was beat by the first Negro until he was exhausted. I was holding my hands behind me at that time on my left side, because I suffered from polio when I was six years old.
After the first Negro had beat until he was exhausted, the State Highway Patrolman ordered the second Negro to take the blackjack.
The second Negro began to beat and I began to work my feet, and the State Highway Patrolman ordered the first Negro who had beat me to sit on my feet - to keep me from working my feet. I began to scream and one white man got up and began to beat me in my head and tell me to hush.
One white man - my dress had worked up high - he walked over and pulled my dress - I pulled my dress down and he pulled my dress back up.
I was in jail when Medgar Evers was murdered.
All of this is on account of we want to register, to become first-class citizens. And if the Freedom Democratic Party is not seated now, I question America. Is this America, the land of the free and the home of the brave, where we have to sleep with our telephones off the hooks because our lives be threatened daily, because we want to live as decent human beings, in America?
Thank you." - Fannie Lou Hamer, Testimony Before the Credentials Committee, DNC 1964

Me at West Chester University

Now, my story is not Fannie Lou Hamer's, or Sandra Bland's but they are deeply related…the academic institutions I have been a part of that has caused me the most harm and has provided me the most space to share my voice. And maybe “provide isn’t the right word- maybe it was more like…I didn’t give them a choice but to hear me.

I will never say that any one place “gave” me a voice nor taught me how to use it. That skill, I developed on my own, but the institutions that have been forced upon me turned my voice, my body, into protest. I mean, is that not essentially what being a woman of color entails? Are we not existing as protest to the attempt to destroy our mothers, their bodies, their minds and now we watch that same attempt on our bodies and minds play out in courtrooms, college judicial hearings, and presidential election debates. SO, It is in that reality that we in fact have a RESPONSIBILITY to use our bodies in dynamic ways to challenge systems of oppression and to destroy them before they successfully destroy us.

In 2011, I started graduate school, interning in the Office of Student Activities and Leadership Development with two other first year grad students where I was the ONLY black woman in the department of eight. I showed up, heels, skirts, nice blouses (as nice as I could afford at 21 years old). I went to the gym consistently, I was newly single...AND I was battling depression, I was lonely, I was partying, I was drinking…

During this first year I was called into my supervisors office, whom I should mention was a white woman, because it matters in this story.She called me in, closed her door, sat me down, and told me that my clothing was “distracting” to the director of our office, who happened to also be white and as you may assume, a man. Looking back at it I know the issue wasn’t my clothes, the issue was the clothes on MY body, the issue was my body which was essentially an issue with my Blackness, my Latinidad, and the hypersexualization of my being…an unasked view of me and my being tossed upon me by people who were supposed to guide me, love me, protect me who instead violated me, shamed me, made me feel uncomfortable every single time I shared space them and especially in spaces with my director who not only had institutional power but social power in his identities as a white man making 6 figures. I almost left my program… now, yes, this place was paying me and giving me a free Masters degree and I almost choose uncertainty, unemployment, and a complete change in my future plans in order to maintain my sanity and my sense of self respect. I questioned everything about myself, the person I was and wanted to be…the person I NEEDED to be in order to survive amongst these well intentioned white people in this institution that I felt didn’t give a shit about me. I didn’t know where my resources were, I didn’t know where my allies were, if this was something I could report, if anyone would even listen to my story or if I would threaten my entire career and so I sat almost two years in silence about that conversation and my feelings around it. And when I say silence I don’t mean I shrunk or became small, I was still enjoying my friends, successful in my work, and that angst around that incident stayed with me until I was in the last weeks of my program.  

Me pictured far left with my fellow graduate interns

See, this lesson I carried with me throughout my graduate studies and into my professional career – this lesson that I share with my students, let me be more specific, my marginalized students so black folk, women, queer people, trans people, low income first generation, etc…. this lesson Ima share with ya’ll… institutions cannot love you. And so it is with that reality that I carry with me the words of Audre Lorde “survival, is NOT an academic skill” and yet we often learn survival as women of color in these predominately white, patriarchal, academic spaces…it was in my decision to stay in my program, to push forward unapologetically, to wait until my internship exit interview to name ALL the ways in which my experience nearly destroyed me, it was in that moment I had all the power, and yet I still struggle when I return to that space, amongst those people.  You see, I am a woman whose mind and spirit holds the face of Sarah (Saartjie) Baartman (how many people in here know who sarah Baartman is?), who knows that women of color have historically had their bodies studied, critiqued, violated for the benefit of modern science at the hands of white institutions, for the pleasure of men, bearing the burden of unwanted children and unnecessary violence. And it is because of that history that that moment had the impact on me that it did.

What W.E.B Du Boise called a double consciousness experienced by black people in America-that is understanding blackness and black culture as well as whiteness and white culture, lacked a specific analysis of the experience of black woman, having to know all of that PLUS  navigate a gendered world where our bodies are constantly threatened. And yet here we are women, people of color and depending on some of your other identities…what might be a double burden turns into triple or quadruple that. We exist in these institutions and are asked to put our pain, our struggle, our consciousness on display to awaken that which is still sleep inside many of our peers, instructors, and administrators. And I will share what my partner always says before going into this next section and that is: “I don’t have to do shit but stay black and die” and so ya’ll don’t have to do shit but hopefully this might inspire something already boiling in you…

You are living in duplicity in an institution that was not built for you (I’m assuming-based on the time the institution was founded because your history of women and of black/and brown people at this institution is like non-existent online- its almost as if the institution don’t want to talk about it- I mean I hear that’s a thing here, As it is at most PWIs) we taut ‘diversity’ as some kind of magical accomplishment, FYI 19% students of color is NOT enough; and so it is sometimes difficult to hold a mirror up to ourselves and see the ways in which institutions have been failing those of us most marginalized on campus. And for us women of color, if no one has told you yet, you can tackle these systems, strategically and unapologetically. That your body and mind alone hold experiences and knowledge that belong to NO ONE ELSE and that no book could teach anyone, and it is up to you whether you use that to change your institution, the way this place serves you, and claim what you need not JUST simply to survive here but to THRIVE here.

Now Audre Lorde also said,

“Women of today are still being called upon to stretch across the gap of male ignorance and to educate men as to our existence and our needs. This is an old and primary tool of all oppressors to keep the oppressed occupied with the master's concerns. Now we hear that it is the task of women of Color to educate white women -- in the face of tremendous resistance -- as to our existence, our differences, our relative roles in our joint survival.”

You, like me, might choose to be silent until its time to leave. You may write, you may lay your body on the ground in protest, you MUST vote if you can, you MUST cultivate community with each other and as I said before, you can not do shit sometimes, and that okay too, but your simply being here is ENOUGH. 

Thank you

1 comment:

  1. Thank you so much for posting this! I was just about to look for it!