what if i am the one
 in need of healing?

what if i love you,

so much, that i still love him

what kind of hell will that be

this greed my heart has?

what sort of misery,

will this heart of mine, continue to endure,

what manner of lies

can I continue justifying?

what kind freak show,

will my life be?

how can i not love you,

the way you should be-

you’re the salvation

and i am just a man,


a little boy,

trapped inside, this body

i die, each time I think of loving you. less

i drown. each time I think of losing you

give me your heart.

give me your heart.

why is yours so pure unlike mine

just an empty vessel

never big enough to contain you

large enough to be hollow

how can I not love you in this pain

i am trying to heal

 

 

and the night you have a lump on your throat

when the air becomes too thick to breath,

and your chest too heavy 

to carry you, or your heart

is troubled, because he 

didn't say he loves you, back. 

You will convince yourself 

it's your fault. 

that you're unlovable. Yet, 

You will want to tell him that you need a savior. 

he will never understand. 

He has never tried to die

for anything. 

 

***

That was the year he reminded me that our love was abundant. Abundant and unstoppable just like the blue waters of the ocean. Full. It perplexed me to imagine love as being mutual. That I loved him in the same way he loved me. Even more perplexing: to imagine that I would love someone in a way that was unstoppable– did he imagine that the poems I write at midnight are about him? That I gaze the ceiling at night, with a smile stretching my face and teeth brightening the room, thinking about him? That I was mesmerized by his eyes, as he was with mine?

To imagine love as a mutual feeling is rather naive and unintelligent: some people are meant to love more than others whilst others love themselves, more than they love others.

Of course, I was not going to tell him that I longed for my former lover each time he leaned in to kiss me. I stared him deep in the eyes as if I was looking beneath his soul and wondered how a man so intelligent like Orapeleng, a man who completed his undergraduate and postgraduate studies at an elite university in the world, could not see that his affection and love suffocated me, made me want less of him, but more myself. Yet I still kissed him– I kissed him hoping that he was Tumelo– that his lips weren’t as lonely as his presence. Isn’t this the worst kind of betrayal– your mind wondering off to your former lover, Tumelo, yet another man loves you uncontrollably? But isn’t it more devastating when he tells you that you’re the sun, the moon and the stars, the universe, yet you still feel that is inadequate because your universe is being in another man’s arms?

When the sun, the moon, and the stars aren’t enough, you convince yourself that perhaps someday that this person will become your universe. Although your heart will love him out of pity, you will hold his hands even when they are soaked with sweat, and try to forget about the grip of your old lover. You will write poems and share them with him– poems about unconditional love and defiant love. Although they will not be about him, you will tell him they are about him– because that is what you do when you love pitifully.

 

 

The first time I loved a boy more than he loved me, I remembered my father. I remembered how my mother loved him more that he did her. I remembered how at times, she loved him more than us. It was almost infuriating, and at times it was a fuzzy feeling at the pit of my bosom.

 

I grew up watching people choose other people over me. In grade school, I was one of the poor kids in class, I was always the last one to be picked during group work. When I told my mother about her boyfriend dismissing me from our home, at ten, she chose him over me. My father chose his girlfriend over me— her birthday mattered the most, although we shared the same birthday.

Here I was— a 20-year-old, in love with a boy for the first time in my life. I watched him choose someone over me. It was the thought that killed me the most. The thought that I was inadequate. That I was not gay enough, lough enough or careless enough. My chest grew with heaviness.

There was no way I was going to un-love him. How else was going to forget about his mystifying smile? Or the way his eyes twitch when he saw me pass across the room? Perhaps the way his cheeks tightened when I read him my poetry? He loved my poetry. He loved my poetry in the same way my father loved my mother’s food. He said my poetry reminded him of the things he wanted the most. He said he wanted me. I was never sure of what that meant. I was not sure if he loved my poetry more than me. I was never sure if he loved me at all. Perhaps that’s what drew me closer to him— like a dog seeking a bone that doesn’t not belong to it.

It was as if the more I wanted him, the less he wanted me. It was as if my love came straight from a Shakespeare play. I was Lysander and he, Hermia— I had convinced myself that the course of love never did run smooth. I was delusional. Love does that to people. That’s what made my mother stick around longer.

I had always wondered: what is it about my father that my mother loved? What made him irresistible? There was nothing beautiful about him besides his deep and stingy pockets. He did have a mesmerizing walk that I wanted to have. His lips were smaller than mine, yet his muttered lies through them. And he was tall like a giraffe—his presence in a room was always strong; an expensive smell and a loud ego. There was no kind of substance in him that I found woeful. I am man in love with other men— I am qualified to make that judgment.

But the more my mother loved this pitiful, shallow grave of a man, the deeper she dug herself to her grave. If the pillows in my mum’s bedroom could tell the story of their lives, they would recite a song my mother sang every night on nights he was never around. Songs with a melody that sounds like funeral hymns. Songs that are hopeless yet persistent in their pitch and delivery. Songs that cut through the diaphragm and make one weep, just like my mother. So, my mother taught me how to love in the ways one was never supposed to love. She loved like a person without choice.

I expected more from my mother. I expected explicit lessons on love. I understand that it was never her intention to put her life on display and teach me all the things I know about love. Like the things, she never taught me. Like the possibility of loving someone to a point it suffocates you. Like perhaps that’s not love and but a void in my life is trying to fill itself. Like how it is possible to convince yourself that you love someone so much that you can’t live without them. Like how it is possible to write and rewrite suicide notes and negotiate with depression, anxiety and ultimately survive death.

But, can I blame the poor woman? Can I blame her for the many ways she loved in the ways she was never meant to love? Could I blame her for twisting herself into shapes to please this man? Aren’t lessons on love the ones we are never told but shown? — just as her mother showed her, and I, through her?

I wanted my mother to choose herself more. I wanted her to quit soaking her pillows with tears. I wanted her to speak out more against my father. There was a way in which she shrunk herself around him. At times, like a mouse looking for a place to hide and most times like a wrinkled paper waiting to be tossed around. The older I got, the frailer her skin became and the more hair she lost. My aunt told me that my mother once had a beaming face. I missed that face as if I knew it. It was this love that I knew. This uncontrollable love. So, I grew up watching my mother chase an illusion of love. I watched her get beaten by one man after the other. I listened to her cry herself to sleep, night after night.

When the boy I loved left me, I was broken. My heart felt like a shattered glass and my body missed the tingling touch of his cold hands. I was a 20-year-old version of my mother. I was young and felt like I had lived enough to un-love myself. The more I loved him, the more I taught myself to choose other people over me. It was as if I needed saving.

My anxiety was numbing me. It was a void I wanted to fill—the void of his loveless absence. I longed for the scent of his skin and the ways his arms would meet my waist on days I needed to be held. For months, I wanted to be held by him. I wanted to feel his touch again. But I loved him and I was addicted to him because for the first time, he chose me. Someone chose me. I was no longer worried about my mother loving my father more. I was no longer worried about my father remembering my birthday.  I had found a savior.

I know love is empty.

 

 

I have always been fascinated by the left hand. The way in which the gold wedding band curls around the ring finger. My mother’s left ring finger was never decorated with a wedding band. Like Assata Shakur, she belonged to nobody but herself. She is an unmarried woman with six children—two boys and four girls– born out-of-wedlock. In a patriarchal, pro-family African society, she is a lefetwa– a spinsteran unmarried woman often regarded as a second-grade woman. Her existence as an unmarried mother, in a country and culture that rewards and honors married women with children, my mother disturbs the patriarchal vision of family and womanhood. Her unconscious, subtle, and ordinary defiance is an unaccounted feminist practice that remains in the margins of hegemonic narratives within the feminist discourse. The choice of spinsterial motherhood is one that revolts against restrictive, possessory, and violent notions of patriarchy perpetuated by African customs and colonial antics such as the Christian religion.

When my mother conceived her first child in her first year out of high school, as she recalls, there was anger and disappointment and shame extended towards her. The idea of premarital sex is one that is regarded as a taboo—religiously and customarily. There is a prescriptive way the Batswana people of Southern Africa and the Christian faith force on women—an emphasis on purity in the form of virginity. Virginity is a commodity of “respectable womanhood,” and a disturbance of this idea with the evidence of pregnancy, as in my mother’s case, is punishable but claiming it is an unconscious yet revolt. Whilst women’s choice to conceive out-of-wedlock is “shameful,” there is honor afforded to men for a similar act—this reinforces the double standards of patriarchy in the form religion and customary beliefs.

When men have children at an early age, and out-of-wedlock, it received as a “manly act.” But my mother’s choice to have a child at an early age is revolutionary as it underscores her sexual agency—a gendered act often rewarded to men and used to shame women. On a religious and cultural level, the persistence on neglecting women’s sexual agency is patriarchal. The denial of that agency asserts power in one end of the spectrum but the choice to become a mother at a young age is to individually disavow male dominance; to exist in the margins of society as a woman and to tailor a path best suited for the woman (my mother in this case) and exist without, or limited, claims on the woman by religion and culture.

The ability and the liberty to choose to be an unmarried mother affords women with the power of centralized lineage through the naming process. In both Christian and Batswana naming practices, the naming of a child is a privilege, a right and normalcy afforded to the men—the father, often if married to the mother, passes their last names to their children. Fundamentally, the naming process normalizes the erasure of maternal lineage tracing; this lauds paternal lineage as primary, salient and dominant lineage and the maternal lineage as unimportant and secondary. For example, my siblings and I carry my mother’s last name, and this is an uncommon practice. But spinsterial motherhood becomes a paradigm shifting model of feminism which destabilizes normalized lineage tracing. The power of naming children allows women to have rightful claims on their children. Whilst the maternal ancestral tracing is regards these children as amavazandlebe— children of no birth, bastards, illegitimate children—unmarried mothers shield their children from this violence by assuring their children of their importance as people even without a paternal marking attached to their last names. In the article, Self-Identified Feminist Mothers’ Naming Practices for Their Children: Accepting Being “as Feminist as Everyone Else”, Amy Eshleman and Jean Halley examine western naming practices and reveal that:

“(p)arents’ explanations of their decisions regarding a child’s surname rarely acknowledge male privilege. Common explanations for patrilineal choices include following tradition, arguing that it will be easier for the child, claiming that it was an aesthetic choice, prioritizing that the family share a name, and avoiding the conception that a child’s parents were not married[1]” (Eshleman and Halley 215-229).

With unmarried mothers, the process of naming is one that unconsciously dismantles male privilege by disruptive normative traditions associated with naming children on patrilineal lines. This silenced process, practiced by women like mother, of naming children on matrilineal lines, mystifies heteropatriarchal power and privilege, and this act makes spinsterial motherhood revolutionary in the sense of agent and emancipatory reclamations.

The first time I heard of the term “broken home,” I was in a youth church service and it reminded of my family and the way my mother chose to raise us. This term, was referring to women raising children out-of-wedlock and were in fact, children without a paternal figure in their lives. To this very day, it is a term that continues to cause discomfort for me. A home does not become whole because there is a male figure present. The centering of unmarried mother’s agency within the private sphere and blurring patrilineal lines with regards to familial organization is frowned upon and is commonly called a “broken home.” The idea of a “broken home” is a heteropatriarchal presumptuous theory used to define unmarried with children out-of-wedlock. This term serves in two-fold: firstly, to single out unmarried women as broken, and secondly, to reduce single-women-headed-households as broken. The premise of this “brokenness” is based on the absence of a male figure. When traditional customs and religion deny women motherhood based on marriage, when these interlocking system regards motherhood as a service purchased through marriage, the choice to exist outside those systems cause patriarchal turbulence. It is this turbulence that hones unconscious consciousness in women like my mother[2].

The anti-patriarchal role of mothering in a “broken home” is a process of ungendering the domestic sphere and then subsequently the public sphere. Whilst the traditional role of the mother in a heterosexual marriage or domestic partnership insists on gendered roles for children, the logic of patriarchy is its insistence on the binary–boy/girl, masculine/feminine, strong/weak—and therefore, disregard of a spectrum of abilities. In homes led by unmarried mothers, there is great emphasis on shared labor. For example, the way in which my mother raised us, fixed gendered roles such as cooking, babysitting and cleaning were not executed in a gendered manner, to an extent, on both male children and female children. Within this revolutionary motherhood and feminism framework, the ungendered nature of domestic work is symbolic and paradigm shifting. It focuses on availability, responsibility and communal action—a tenet which mainstream feminism regards as important but often analyzed within the private sphere: the role of men and women in the workforce, although important, it does not strike a balance with the role of in the private sphere. In hindsight, spinsterial motherhood as a form of revolutionary feminism disturbs the normalized ways of domestic roles, with an emphasis on individuality yet enabling a sense of community. Most importantly, this form of mothering is a resistance to patriarchal power by deconstructing attributes to femininity and masculinity.

Spinsterial motherhood is about women who are paradigm shifters at the sight of religious and cultural dogmas posing to restrict them. Women whose very existence questions boundaries set for them and exist beyond those lines. Growing up, I saw my life and the way women around me raised me as an ordinary act– an act that did not require celebration. In retrospect, my mother and dozens of women around me continue to be extraordinary. They continue to subtly revolt against fallacious, one-sided and oppressive systems that are fixated on reducing their personhood and deny them of womanhood. There is a paradigm shifting way “broken home(s)” can shape an individual, especially children. Because you grow up being told that you are broken, you have more reason to prove to the world that you are in fact, whole–that your choices and decisions are not based on the lack of a father figure but you have been taught about the importance of excellence and courage. You have been taught to honor, support and love all people. This egalitarian style of motherhood enables choice, agency and freedom.

 

 

 

 

 

 ————————————————————————————————————————————

[1] Eshleman, Amy, and Jean Halley. “Self-Identified Feminist Mothers’ Naming Practices For Their Children: Accepting Being “As Feminist As Everyone” Else”. Women’s Studies 45.3 (2016): 215-229. Web.

[2] “Revolutionary Mothering: Love On The Front Lines”. Secure.pmpress.org. N.p., 2017. Web. 5 Apr. 2017.

 

 

“Living life as Black women requires wisdom [,] because knowledge about the dynamics of intersecting oppression has been essential…”—Patricia Hill Collins, Black Feminist Thought (257)

The oppressive intimacy of apartheid to Blacks is as close as the roof is to the to the walls of a house, sometimes just as clenched fists of an abusive man to a woman’s body– a compounded violence, an invalidated and silenced history and reality of a black mother in post-apartheid South Africa– often existing in the footnotes of androcratic accounts of apartheid history. There is a generation of women’s lived experiences which has been invalidated, erased and unacknowledged. A generation of women who became mothers at the heart of the apartheid regime and confronted the violence of the oppressive apartheid system in South Africa. This violence invaded their bodies in public spaces and in their homes. Women, like my grandmother, had to raise children dodging bullets in streets and in their homes—if not from the apartheid state police, it was from their own spouses. The neglect of these women’s memories, experiences and lived knowledge about defiance, strength and hope has not been centralized and validated as concrete knowledge. It does beg the question: why? Why are these experiences overlooked? Who has been articulating these experiences? How has this powerful history been subjugated? Why are women like Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, my grandmother, my mother and millions of poor Black women– who experienced the intimate violence of the system in their homes ignored?

The subjugation of revolutionary Black motherhood knowledge amidst an oppressive system, can be linked with separatism in the form of the apartheid system. At the crux of this system, therein lies the racial segregation laws– a separation of public amenities, land and resources[3]. The rigidity of this system thrived on the insistence on the binary: spaces for Blacks/Spaces for Whites, Blacks/Whites, Superior race/Inferior race, Civilized/Savage and Valid knowledge/ Native Knowledge. Although these public goods were denied to Blacks, politically elite Black men, however, managed to access those forbidden spaces in the plight to democratize South Africa. Because of this limited, but valid access, Black men have been key figures in the fight against apartheid. While Black men are the key figures, this centralization removes the importance of black women in the political public sphere. Yet, women are expected to laboriously contribute to the capitalistic public sphere. Paradoxically, Black men are domineering figures in the public and private/ domestic sphere.

Because of this compounded erasure and subordinate placement, the domestic sphere becomes a playground for the apartheid police regime and a violent space for black mothers due to domestic violence– a reality shaping girlhood, for their daughters– from their male partners. Because the investigation of the hegemonic “Black” experience under the system has been dominated by elite black men politicians, the “matrix of domination” regarding “work, family, sexual politics, motherhood, and political activism” as “paradigms” shaping womanhood are not accounted (Collins 251). I was raised by my mother and father. But my father was a bitter man. He was abusive. I watched him beat my mother to a pulp from as early as I can remember. I am the youngest of the three children born between my mother and father. As the last one, the last girl, education was hard (Motsoeneng). The value of centering black motherhood with a critique on the apartheid system, women like my mother locate themselves in relation to the systems in which they exist in. This location enables one to identity the roots and the process of their consciousness. It remains pivotal to understand that the role of motherhood has been greatly formed and violated by the patriarchal violence of the apartheid system and the relegation of black mother into the private sphere.

While black feminist knowledge, such as black revolutionary motherhood, remains on the margins, scholars such as Collins argue that higher education and news media have become potential activators in centering these relevant narratives. While these claims are valid, and are without great dispute, it ought to be acknowledged that within the greater framework of access, higher education in the global south, and media outlets, are controlled by dominant groups whose politics do not align with centering these narratives. If higher education becomes the central location to access this information, this contributes to use of academia as an elitist tool and perpetuating the information access gap. Given the existing constitutional framework in South Africa, which advocates for free basic education for all people, therein lies an opportunity to disperse this knowledge. This potential opening, however, provides an opportunity to localize and centralize this wealth of knowledge.

Revolutionary motherhood narratives during apartheid can become a useful historical lens in which male violence can be traced and understood. My mother cites that:

White people were killing everyone. And if you were a male child, in a home, it was worse. You were a threat and a target. You had to be killed or put in jail. We were exiled, basically. We struggled a lot there. We ate once a week but we worked in the fields (Motsoeneng 2017).

Although the protection of the Black male child was well meaning, it has contributed the institutionalization of Black male fragility. Because the apartheid regime perceived the Black male—especially young—as a threat to White male power, Black men were exiled by parents and political groups for their protection. Black mothers are domesticated, and expected to protect their children, they put more emphasis on the protection of the male child to avoid violence in their home from the system. (While that saved them from the brutal system, women like my grandmother continued to experience domestic violence.) Moreover, the androcentric accounts on apartheid does not provide a framework that locates the roots of Black male fragility protection. For example, when the President of South Africa, was charged with rape, the women’s league of the leading party blamed the victim and never supported the proven perpetrator. While simplistic and lazy perspectives have analyzed this as the league’s protection of Zuma for political gains, this groundbreaking epistemology understand this as a legacy and a burden left for black women—an internalized and maternalistic protection of Black male fragility.

The hegemonic Afro-androcratic accounts of the violence of the apartheid regime exists to reinforce male heroism. This positivist approach disregarding the use of Black men to frame the narrative aims to individualize oppression functions under the key tenets of capitalism and its dire focus on being self-serving. The material realities of black mothers as bearers of a colonial world above their shoulder—exiling their children to defy the system and surviving domestic violence, when shared violate and create a new path from existing forms of post-apartheid knowledge. However, path breaking scholars who create this new path using personal narratives  acknowledge the discomfort this confrontation causes for a larger South African mass—a fear to confront violent male narratives which decontextualize women’s lived experiences.

 

The Power of a Black Revolutionary Motherhood in Post-Apartheid South Africa

The liberal delusion that democratization equates decolonization minimizes Black feminist thought and the value of revolutionary Black motherhood with an apartheid understanding.  This epistemology warrants collective strength, enables a critical use of history to reshape Black womanhood and motherhood. The acknowledgement of this frame underscores the valuable notion that:

The historical conditions of Black woman’s work, both in Black civil society and in paid employment, fostered a series of experiences that when shared and passed on become the collective wisdom of a Black women’s stand point. (Collins 256)

For several black mothers, who live through the memories of their silenced and unacknowledged histories of their mothers, this framework could enable a better way to navigate different of systems that oppress women. Moreover, this knowledge affords women with the ability to articulate, compare and understand their own experiences in relation with their own mothers. My mother can never imagine a world in which her mother’s experience had no impact in her—the centering of this past gives these women a voice loud enough to shake their ancestor’s tombs.

More importantly, lived knowledge decolonizes the body when transferred from person to the other. To centralize this framework within the broader education framework begins a transformative way of decolonization. While Collins notes that Black feminist thought challenges the colonial tenets of formal education, formalizing this form of knowledge within the broader education structure provides an opportunity to reimagine decolonized education and sharing of narratives. This works builds up the to the key understanding of womanhood, the creation of a personalized one and appropriate use of history and accountability. The androcratic, Eurocentric and limited ways of creating and legitimizing knowledge disregard these lived nuances.

 

“My mother tells me that my grandmother was a superwoman. She often talks about her strength and determination before she tells me about her beauty. She tells me that her tongue was sharp that it made many nervous around her. I think about this woman a lot, my grandmother. Perhaps if I visit her grave, this last home she shares with my grandfather, I will feed off from that strength and defiant energy. Sometimes, I wonder, what if that strength was her pain? Then I remember– she was a disruptive woman, as my mother claims, and therefore, it had to be her strength. The same kind of strength in my mother’s tears and sharp silence. Sometimes I see it, when my little sisters question the unquestionable. Oh, what a lovely woman she must have been. She ought to be breaking the gates of heaven with that smile over us.”—Kabelo Motsoeneng, The World Inside My Home, 2016

 

 

 

Written by Gabriella L.  Brown 

Feminist knowledge in the eyes of the academy is rarely seen as legitimate or shared among academics. Since feminist knowledge is always being questioned, the production of it in the world or in academia is slim. The academy continually aims to silence or hide the various feminist knowledges in the world by devaluing the ones that are produced. The importance of feminist knowledge is that it brings new insight to the writer and readers. If feminist knowledge were valued as much as other knowledges, then there would be no need to continually explain the importance of sharing it. The feminist knowledge that will be the focus of this essay is the Black feminist knowledge coming from Black female teachers working in private education. This knowledge aims to uncover the obstacles that Black female teachers face when trying to enter predominantly White institutions (PWI), which continues even after they have entered, and the changes their knowledge has on private education.

The obstacles that Black female teachers face when teaching in private education take a toll on their mental well-being, but are not without their due rewards. They must juggle the thought of whether they are being hired as a token or not for the school. At these institutions they not only hold a place of heighten visibility due to their skin color, but have to be hyper vigilant and aware they may be considered as representatives of their race. Having to deal with both racism and sexism these teachers abilities and actions are constantly questioned by the administration, parents, and even students. They face social isolation due to being different from their White colleagues and having to deal with the psychological effects of working in this sphere. When they enter into these predominately White spaces (PWI), more often than not, they have an impact on the current curriculum at the institution, by introducing Black figures and literature to their students. For students of color, they take on the job of being a safe space in which these students can vent and find solace. These are some of the many hurdles that Black female teachers must jump over, yet they manage to do this so elegantly that it needs to be uncovered.

In an effort to uncover this knowledge, an interview was conducted with a Black female teacher who has worked in private education for twenty years. My interviewee, Shelby Stokes, currently works at Riverdale Country School as a high school English teacher. Stokes is the product of private education. She attended Hotchkiss, a boarding school in Connecticut, and Wesleyan University, a liberal arts college in Connecticut, so she is more able to understand the struggles students of color go through alone combined with the struggles of being a teacher of color at these PWIs. Stokes currently teaches tenth grade English and Black literature at Riverdale Country School.

The Black literature class that she teaches is an elective at the school, and one of only a few courses that educate students on Black accomplishments in writing. In the classroom, Stokes is a role model, especially to the other students of color, for students struggling to maneuver at a predominantly White institution that still subliminally tells students of color that they are not welcomed by making classes covering their history electives rather than part of the standard curriculum. She is an example of the slightly new, yet rising Black feminism, where highly educated Black women are able to take up space in the predominantly White dominated sphere of private education. Stokes has managed to climb through various PWIs to earn her education to teach at predominantly White private schools despite the various obstacles in her way.

There are not many Black people in private education, let alone Black women. Many times they are the only ones among their colleagues that are a woman of color. These private institutions were created for the White elite to have access to and to exclude people of color. Due to historical events like the Civil Rights Movement and the increasing need for institutions to appear liberal, PWIs have attempted to have what can loosely be called a diverse staff. Black female teachers are among the people who have been hired by PWIs and are sometimes considered token minorities. They are viewed as tokens because more often than not they “find themselves working alone or nearly alone” since they will be one of the few minorities employed at a particular institution (Alexander 5). Black teachers may have chosen to work in this environment, but it is an environment that they must enter in order to destroy the “hegemonic, narcissistic environment created by White men” and open the door for more teachers of color (Alexander 11).

Black female teachers face two problems when they are seen as tokens. They not only feel a heightened sense of visibility, but are also asked to act as representatives of their race. Every action they take will be noticed. Whether they are late to class or absent from a meeting, every action is viewed hypercritically, because they are one of only a handful of people who are Black. This causes them to have to be cautious of what they do and aware that any mistake or misstep will be noticed, yet their accomplishments will go unnoticed.

The interesting part is that they will remain almost completely “invisible among the large White [faculty]” in terms of their capabilities until “their presence is needed to serve as the ‘diversity’ voice” (Patton, Catching 714). There is a heightened necessary awareness when it comes to being a Black teacher when many of the people around them are White. Since they are the only Black person among White people they will likely be asked to speak for their whole community under the assumption that the Black community is just one big community. They are believed to be “all knowing about everything Black” and asked to explain “the African American experience,” which not only can lead to embarrassment, but the need to be hyper vigilant about their words (Alexander 5). The pressure of speaking for the whole Black race is one that takes a toll on Black female teachers given that one wrong move can reinforce the stereotypes their White colleagues may already have.

Black female teachers teaching at these PWIs are obviously competent and educated enough to work at these schools, yet their abilities to teach are constantly questioned by either the administration, parents, or students. The largest source of pushback that Black teachers encountered surprisingly comes from their students who will challenge their authority and knowledge. Stokes faced this obstacle when she was teaching at St. Paul’s and put together her American literature elective curriculum to be made up of nearly all authors of color. The students who took her class “were mostly White and infuriated that [she] had done that” and went so far as to say that the class was “not an American literature course and [was not] what [they] signed up for” strictly on the basis that they were reading Black authors. Saying that Black-American authors are not a part of American literature and disrespectfully challenging their teachers because they are introducing work written by Black people just shows how resistant White students are “regarding issues of diversity” (Patton 714). No teacher should be “subjected to unwarranted attacks on their credibility”, leading them to feel that they need to explain to their students the curriculum and its importance before they even cover the material (Patton, Catching 720). Being a teacher is already a challenging job, but Black female teachers realize quickly that in these PWIs, no matter how long they teach, they will consistently be forced to explain their reasoning for including material pertaining to do with Black people.

Teaching while Black at PWIs potentially leads Black female educators to becoming isolated in their work environment from their White colleagues. This is especially true for young Black female teachers who are new to teaching and are trying to learn the ropes. They feel as if they cannot open up to their White colleagues due to the issues that tokenization at institutions and the questioning of their competence cause within their psyche. They may begin to “feel less powerful” due to their inexperience and age, causing them to make the decision to stay silent and watch the other teachers in an attempt to improve their own teaching (Cozart 28). At PWIs, it is hard enough to be new, given how cold these places can be when someone is new. Being both Black and a woman generates an intimidating atmosphere they must enter.

Black female teachers may feel out of place and disconnected among their colleagues who may be “cordial and conciliatory” to them, but will make no further effort to share important information about their teaching ethic or act as mentors to them (Alexander 6). These teachers of color are left out and forced to figure things out on their own, only contributing to the idea that they are not qualified or educated enough to teach in such a space. With this mentality it is no wonder that Black female teachers will not associate with their White colleagues and would rather be alienated or interact with others like them.

At Stokes’ first PWI, she was supposed to be mentored by two older teachers during her teaching fellowship at St. Paul’s. When discussing her experience at this institution, she made sure to emphasize that she was putting the term “mentored” into quotations, because they would not let her teach at all. The purpose of the fellowship was for her to watch, and eventually teach some of their classes, but instead these two teachers “pretty much put [her] in a position of observing only for most of the year” until Stokes went to her department chair. Stokes had to be reassigned to another group of mentors that would actually allow her to teach part of the class and show her skills.

When asked if her first two mentors would not let her teach due to her race or gender, Stokes said, “it was because of a lot of things; I was young, I was Black, I was female”, while they were older, and one of them was a White man in his forties. She felt disappointed that they would not let her teach when she had just graduated from Wesleyan University and was quite capable. The fact that at the end of the year, St. Paul’s made an exception and offered her a position speaks to the blatant racism, sexism, and ageism she faced as a new teacher. Stokes is not the first and, unfortunately, will not be last Black female teacher who faces this kind of alienation and hindrance from White colleagues.

The curriculum at PWI’s is more often than not built around Eurocentric and western material, but when Black female teachers enter private education they have a powerful impact on changing it. These institutions “inadequately frame people of color through deficits” and choose to talk about them in relation to European history as if their history did not exist before European influence (Kohli 5). Teachers of color are the ones who actually think to introduce material written by people of color, which helps to lower “the hostile racial climates” that students of color must learn in (Kohli 4). When introducing new material, they have to “work hard to get departments to buy certain books” and then to get the students to read them, but it is all in hopes that teaching this material will open their student’s eyes (Kelly 245). For Black female educators this could be their only chance to teach Black literature or history to students who may never have to learn this kind of knowledge because the rest of their teachers will be White. For students of color, this is their only chance to actually feel like their history exists and matters.

Stokes has experienced the impact of changing a school’s curriculum and the positive effects it has had on some of her students. When she spoke of the time she changed the American literature course material and the uproar from the students, she also mentioned that down the line she found that it made a difference. Stokes was told by another colleague that one of her students, who had gone off to college, realized that “they did not understand what Stokes was trying to do at the time, but that it really opened their eyes in the way that it needed to be opened”. Stokes fought hard to prove to her students that Black literature is American literature and that it is a legitimate source of material to read. Her choice to change the curriculum was able to open one of her student’s minds to the fact that they did indeed “have a narrow perspective of the what the material was” because they were so resistance and unwilling to be open to material that was unfamiliar. Stokes has realized that with teaching, she never really sees the impact she has on her students, but that it is only later, once they have walked out of the bubble of private education, that her students have this realization.

When working at these PWIs, Black female teachers not only serve as teachers, but as a safe space for the few Black students. When Black students gain a private education it comes with the realization that they will struggle and feel discomfort in school. The knowledge that they will be one of the few Black students in the class or grade and face many of the mental strains that teachers of color face working in private education. Black educators are aware of the marginalization the students of color face, thus many times they serve as “a formal and informal mentor for” these students (Alexander 9). This role that teachers of color take on may not be in their job description, but they assume them because they know how it feels, especially if they attended a similar institution. The teachers come to the same school that their students attend so they too feel “their struggle, their pain, and their disappointment in the system” in which they must live in (Cozart 28). This is why many Black female teachers will “keep an open door policy where students [can] feel [welcomed] to come” (Alexander 9) and talk about the impact on their mental and physical well-being. It is important for students of color to have this safe space within such a hostile environment and feel as if they have an ally within the institution.

While I was interviewing Stokes, the topic of teaching Huckleberry Finn came up, and the impact she has on the students of color. She serves not only as a safe space for them, but as a defensive wall against the ignorant comments White students may say. She makes sure to set clear boundaries for the entire class. Stokes stated, “as a black teacher teaching this book there is no way [she could not] have [such a] conversation” because she knows that ignorant comments hurt her just as much as it does her students of color. She recognizes that her presence in the classroom makes the students of color feel as if they have an ally and empowered to be able to stand up to ignorant comments from classmates themselves. Stokes has the power to check them and the fact that she makes all the difference to her students. White teachers in a classroom with Black students are “able to avoid it because they can” and do not need to recognize how racially charged this book is and the effects it has on the students of color. The presence and safe space that Stokes, and teachers like her, provide is one that makes students incredibly grateful to have a Black teacher.

This essay and interview together, show how crucial Black feminist knowledge is within private education. Obtaining a first-hand recording of Shelby Stokes’ narrative of her over twenty years of experience in private education legitimizes the various sources used within this essay. Neither I, nor other writers who have written about feminist knowledge, should be questioned on the legitimacy. This research essay was able to uncovered just a few of the many hurdles that Black female educators face in PWIs, including tokenism, having their capabilities always in question, and isolation. It showed the change that their presence has on the curriculum and students of color when they enter these spaces. One of the most important things highlighted in this essay is that it shows that Black female teachers are just as valuable, if not more, to the school, its curriculum and its students.

 

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There’s a sound I will always remember. The sound of a body bag and a mortuary crane.

Oh, how the yellow zips clipped and crackled my chest,

Closing off things i never thought were open–

Like the memories of you that I always cherish,

Like the sound of your voice when laughter bursts of your lips,

Oh how they were zipped–

The sound of the crane cracking the floor–

Oh how I wanted to curse the ground.

To insult it for forming you and then taking you–

That sound, the cracking sound,

Sounded like the piercing sound of your cry.

Oh, how it pained me when you wept:

I remember you,

I carry you,

In me and

In places I will continue to enter.

 

Sometimes I cry,

Sometimes I wonder,

Sometimes I cry in wonder.

Of memories we would have made

Of things I could have done for you

Of lessons on love

On love for family and for God

On love for home before self

Of unwavering hope

Oh, how that sound haunts

Sometimes in my dreams when I see you

Sometimes on doors I close

Reminding me of your voice

Oh! how I miss you

Oh! how home is no longer home

Oh! how I died when you died

Sometimes, I wish you were my here–

Perhaps, someday, I will meet my home–

For in you home is better hope

For home is you.

 

The garden of Eden

Was the first funeral

We brought flowers to.

We bring flowers to funerals

Not as a gesture of love,

Or sympathy

 

But to feed our minds

With delusions.

Hoping that that the smell

Of daisies, roses and tulips will

Soothe away the pain.

We fool ourselves thinking

That we also are flowers;

That we live to be watered.

 

We bring flowers to funerals

For the reincarnation

of our egos.

Cry, my beloved country

For your children have forsaken you.

They have placed themselves above freedom

Turned their children to serpents,

Cry, my beloved country,

For your children weep with you, too.

 

Cry, my beloved country–

For your children no longer have a home,

For men have placed duty of themselves before you,

For they have put price tags on their children,

For their homes are run by strangers,

For these strangers run their homes with familiarity and contempt,

For your children, wept

Cry, my beloved country

 

Woe is us children of the soil,

Woe is us children of no birth,

Woe is us children who seek a haven,

Woe is us children who run and seek a home,

Cry, my beloved country.

 

For your springs are dry,

And your soil is barren,

Your clouds are sad,

And your wind is warm and still,

Cry, my beloved country–

Wrap yourself into my arms.

Let me remind you that you’re a wonder,

Let me remind you that you’re a force many seek to reconcile with,

Let me tell you about the names I want to call you:

Names that will remind you of your broken yet brave wings,

Soaring high although your kings want to cut you short,

Let me remind you of your beauty:

Your mesmerizing beauty;

Your beastly beauty mystifying mine fearful heart.

 

Oh, cry, my beloved country,

For I know your heart is full with sorrow,

For I know the heaviness in your chest, inflaming your soul,

For your eyes are blinded with fury,

For I know you have wept, enough

Cry, Cry, my beloved country.

 

For we are not worthy of your skies,

For we are not worthy of your embrace,

For we are not worthy of your grace.

For we are the ones who broke you–

Into many pieces of evil

Beloved, if not tears let fury fall upon us.

Teach to love one another.

Let your fury engulf and renew us,

Let your fury be our hope,

Hope to change and honor you.

 

Maybe your tears will flood the soil,

And we will forgive.

Maybe your tears will spoil the soil–

And we will appreciate the wind,

Cry, my beloved country

Cry, child of the earth and the blue waters

Sibling of many nations.

Bleed Majesty,

Forgive us.

Oh, how we want your forgiveness:

How we want to honor you,

How we are not worthy of your honor,

Cry, my beloved country

Here— Cry,

Use my hands of clay and wipe thine face,

Stare into my fearful eyes and find restoration.

Take mine arms and find mine arms,

Cry. Weep.  Heal,

My beloved country