Notes on a Holiday Break

So much has happened over the past few weeks, that I barely know where to start.  I’ll just jump right in and if this point seems disjointed and random, that’s probably because that is what my life feels like right now.

First, the good news: The semester ended well and I’ll be teaching Intro to LGBT Studies in the spring and LGBTQ Identities in Popular Culture this summer. I’m excited about both courses and I’m itching to put my Black lesbian feminist spin on both of these topics.

My daughter graduated from college on December 9th, and the whole family celebrated the occasion for at least a week. She was also offered a job (albeit part-time), where she completed her internship, so she’s now an assistant editor at a pretty posh little magazine in the South. I had her sign her first issue ’cause I know she’s going to be famous someday!

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After spending three weeks with the fam, I met up with T. in Chattanooga to meet my new “in-laws” for the first time. I was a bit nervous at first, but I had the best time with them and they welcomed me with open arms. Literally. EVERYBODY I met hugged me. I got to tell you, that’s one of the things I love about being in the South with Black people, we aren’t afraid to show you that we love you.

On to the bad news: My mom fell ill while I was home, and after she was admitted to the hospital with possible pneumonia, we found out that she had had a minor heart attack. How the heck did she have a heart attack and no one knew??? She said she probably passed it off as indigestion and I believe her, but she also had a stroke last year with hardly any symptoms.  We’ve got to keep a better eye on her, and she’s got to tell us when something hurts! I won’t theorize here about Black women being “strong” and keeping our pain to ourselves (you can look it up for yourself), but I do believe this is part and parcel why she kept so quiet about not feeling good.

My mini-vacation to Edmonton with T. was cancelled due to the weather (I missed my flight) and her flight was delayed for two days.  This wasn’t such a bad thing, but I probably won’t get back out there until mid-March.

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Finally, I’m in a love/hate relationship with my dissertation right now. This probably deserves its own post, but I’ll just say that I’ve struggled this past semester in ways that I had not thought imaginable. I’m nearly done with the chapter I’m currently working on, but just couldn’t seem to break through my writing fog until today. I don’t know if it’s the dismal job market, current ennui with my topic, or the current state of academia writ large, but I’ve been rethinking this whole Ph.D. thing for a few months now.  I came into this thing fully aware of the risks, but since I’ve been in academia I’ve seen what seems to be a full-scale assault on academic freedom/dissent, the adjunctification of academic labor, as well as come to realize that not everybody working in Women’s/LGBT Studies is as feminist as they claim. Still, I absolutely adore my home discipline of American Studies, even as it comes under fire for its correct decision to boycott Israeli academic institutions.

I’m no baby (no offense to the babies out there), but I started this thing at 40, having enjoyed a decent career in corporate America. However, academic in-fighting and posturing, arm-chair activism, and the never-ending hierarchies sometimes leave me wondering if I made the right choice.  In other words, if another person tells me I’m “just a grad student” one more time, I’m going to punch them in the throat. I’m 44 years old, I’m not “just” anything. Only in academia are you expected to give up life and limb for paltry pay and the privilege of being at the bottom of the academic heap. The undergraduates are treated with more respect. I have not experienced this in my home discipline, but I most certainly have in other areas of the institution with which I am currently affiliated.

But on the other hand, I have the extreme privilege of watching my students “come to consciousness” and knowing that when they leave my classroom, they are better equipped to deal with the issues they will most certainly face in the real world, and that I’ve helped them to think more critically about their role in maintaining or disrupting the race, class, gender, and sexual systems of oppression that impact all of us. On more than one occasion I’ve been blessed with a hug or a kind note of appreciation from a student.

I also love my research project, even though there are days when I want to toss it across the ocean and never look back.  I’ve finally finished transcribing an important interview, and I feel ready to move forward. I received good feedback on this chapter draft from a trusted colleague, and I feel like I’m headed back toward the land of productivity.

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I’m still mad at academia right now, but not because I feel cheated or because I might not get the job I think l I’m entitled to. It’s because I think we can and must do better, and I’m not sure that we will. In this digital age, why are we still holding on to peer review processes that take upwards of 18 months to complete? Why are we still admitting students into graduate programs for which we know there will be no jobs? Why have we allowed contingent labor to become the primary means by which we educate our students? Have we decided that the only way to hold on to whatever semblance of privilege we have is at the cost of educating our students? I know that as a 44-year old Black lesbian, I am not supposed to be here. That I am is in itself an act of resistance and an affront to all those who wish to silence me, and evidence that the work that I am doing is valuable and necessary.

So I must press on. Weary but determined to get what I came for.

Back to Life

So, I’m back from fall break and feeling the burn. I had a wonderful time in Edmonton with my gf, but it’s time to get back to the grind.  It’s hard. One of my academic soul sisters told told me a couple of years ago that it takes about five days to find your rhythm again after a break from the quotidian. Being the taskmaster that I am, I soundly rejected that idea, thinking I only needed a good night’s sleep and my list of things to do to get back on track.  Weeeelllll, that’s not quite how it works, at least not anymore. In other words, she was right.

While I don’t need five whole days to get myself together after a break, (and by break I mean more than three days off in a row from my regular crazy busy schedule), I do need at least two. I need one whole day just to get my body right from driving or flying, both of which now take a toll on me that I didn’t experience in years past.  I need another day to get my house in order, ’cause I don’t know about y’all, but I need my space to be just so before the magic can happen.  And by “just so” I don’t mean perfect, I just mean I need clean underwear and coffee; i.e., laundry and grocery shopping.

So, now the real craziness begins: I’m on the job market, trying to finish the diss, teaching, chairing one committee and serving on two others, as well as presenting at NWSA and participating in their WoC Leadership Program this year. Oh yeah, and my kid is GRADUATING FROM COLLEGE IN DECEMBER. Yeah, ALL that.  Even though I can’t afford to take too long to ease back into this semester, I have taken this afternoon regroup and map out my plan to get everything done for the next few weeks.

Sooo, back to life for me, and here’s a little aural inspiration to get this work party started:

“Odd Girls” and Black Lesbians

This is a re-post of a blog I wrote earlier this year. As I move forward with the diss and continue my work on Black lesbian literature and culture, I am reminded why the work I am doing has value, why our stories MUST be told. Faderman’s text is a salient reminder that if we don’t document our own stories, no one else will.

I’ve just finished reading Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers: A History of Lesbian Life in Twentieth Century America by Lillian Faderman, and while I didn’t really expect to learn anything new about (cough cough) white lesbian culture, I was surprised to find out that Faderman seems to be an apologist for the racist behavior of the white lesbian feminists she writes about during the period of about 1960-1980.

Lest you think I’m being overly sensitive, let me give you a few examples:

To start, Faderman publishes this scholarly text in 1991, but she doesn’t mention Barbara Smith, The NBFO, (National Black Feminist Organization), The Combahee River Collective, or any of the other Black lesbian feminist activists or writers in her chapters on lesbian revolution or lesbian nation, key periods for Black feminist organizing that included several Black lesbians. She does mention Pat Parker briefly, but then goes right onto Third World feminists and “how they felt they all shared the experiences of racism in a white society and white women needed to deal with racism on their own.” This is probably the only thing that Faderman gets right in her discussions about race and lesbian feminists.  Yes, Black and Third World lesbians and feminists did believe that white women needed to deal with their racism, but Faderman makes it seems as if Black and Third World women were at fault for the racism that kept them from feeling a part of the larger lesbian feminist movement.  Faderman states:

“They [white lesbian feminists] really did want to broaden the base of their group by attracting lower-income and Third World women, but they sincerely did not know how, outside of welcomes and appearing receptive.  As radical as they were, they suffered from the liberal’s basic ineptness in dealing with other classes and races.”

Seriously? So these women, who were savvy enough to start an entire movement, organize women from all over the country, come up with an agenda, publish treatises and manifestos, leave their husbands, and forge new lives for themselves on communes and in new communities, couldn’t take the time to sit with their shit and examine their own race and class privilege? Nah, I guess not.

This point is further driven home in a statement by radical lesbians when asked why they didn’t want to work with straight feminists:

“Quit begging our straight sisters to let us be their niggers [italics added] in the movement, and stop taking all the insults and shit work the pussy cats and their toms can heap on us. If we can step forward, we should do so with the intention of working for our own cause….”

So, I’m not surprised at all that white feminists used the oppression of Black people as their go to point to drive home their own positionality in the feminist movement, but I am surprised that Faderman made no mention of this as indicative of the types of racist shenanigans that kept Black and other lesbians of color from wanting to organize with them in the first place. She doesn’t mention this egregious use of the N-word at all. At all.  Yeah, Black women really wanted to work with white women who had the nerve to use the N-word talk about their own oppression, even as they oppressed Black women. Okay.

While Faderman does acknowledge that Black and other lesbians of color did organize, she gives total credit to radical lesbians “who had helped to foster awareness in minority lesbians, who now began to see themselves as a group with lesbian and feminist political interests.” If we are to believe Faderman, Black and other lesbians of color had no idea what feminists or lesbians were before white women came along and educated them.  Girl, bye.

She also mentions that Black women would not embrace the identity “lesbian feminist,” because lesbian feminist goals “were irrelevant to the major problems that minorities faced.” I guess she hasn’t read ANY of Audre Lorde’s work, who always referred to herself as a Black lesbian feminist, and who wrote several essays uncovering the race and class privilege that white women refused to acknowledge at this time.  Faderman wasn’t reading the Combahee River Collective “Black Feminist Statement” either.  Black lesbians WERE suspicious of lesbian separatist politics. They knew that it was impossible to separate themselves completely from their communities, and that any politics that would not address the interlocking oppressions of race, class, sexuality, and gender could not adequately improve the conditions of Black women in the United States. Black lesbians did not hate Black men and most certainly would not abandon Black communities for a politics that barely acknowledged their existence as humans, much less saw them as equals.

Faderman does eventually admit that there were racist policies in place at clubs and bars in San Francisco in the 1980s, but makes light of the situation by reminding us that there was interracial picketing of the clubs and bars. So? Y’all should have shut those mofos down!

I realize that perhaps Faderman couldn’t write an entire history of every lesbian group in the U.S. But I think this book would have been better if it were entitled “A White Lesbian History of the U.S. with notes about Black and Third World lesbians too.” It just seems that information that was readily available about Black lesbians who were working and organizing at the time just didn’t make it into this history. Or quite possibly it is because that very work challenged white lesbian and feminist racism, and Faderman just didn’t want to deal with it. How else can she account for excluding Audre Lorde, Beverly and Barbara Smith, Jewelle Gomez, and others?

So, while this post is neither a measured or methodical examination of Faderman’s text, it is a response to something I felt when I picked the book up the first time: that Black lesbian scholars have got to get on the ball in regards to writing our own histories. There have been several articles that have discussed a few notable Black lesbian texts, even a monograph or two about Black gays and lesbians in the Harlem Renaissance period, and some of the blues women.  I also know Kimberly Springer has written a wonderful history of Black feminist organizing. However, there is no contemporary history of Black lesbians in the United States, merely a chapter or two in this or that anthology.  My own work is on Black lesbian literary and popular culture, and others are engaged in this work as well. But there is so much more that needs to be done.  Work that doesn’t trivialize our experiences as Black women, or our desire to be a part of Black communities. Work that sees us as people, not as props, or tools in the service of someone else’s struggle.  Work that understands that Black lesbians are an important part of U.S. history, and that our stories deserve to be told too.

A Day in the Life, or This Diss Ain’t Gonna Write Itself

Today has been a whirlwind of dissertation writing, online course setups, and grad student housekeeping. This morning, I  added two pages to the diss. I know that doesn’t seem like much, and it isn’t, but they are two GOOD pages. After being unable to produce anything substantial for the past few weeks, I feel good about this progress, and I’m starting to think that my mojo is coming back. I’m actually excited about the section I’m working on, and I can’t wait to pick up the books I ordered to see where they might fit in this part of my research. Those of you who are academics know that scholarly writing is HARD, and I won’t rehash the myriad of reasons why, or the fact that there are days when I can barely pick up a book to skim, or look at a draft of the chapter I’m working on. All of this is par for the course for most academics, and I’m no exception.

Still, this last writing desert felt different; I was seriously beginning to question whether or not I really wanted a spot in the Ivory Tower, or if the Ph.D. is truly a means to any end other than itself.  I’m not frantic or overly paranoid about job market melodrama or the “crisis in the humanities;” I came into this program at 40 years old knowing full well the risks involved. I’ve always had a back-up plan or two or three, so that’s not my issue. I won’t feel like a supreme failure if an academic job doesn’t pan out; I’ll take my Ph.D. and move on with my life. However, there are aspects of academia that I find rather distasteful, and I’m kind of “over” being underpaid, over-worked, and under-appreciated. Don’t get me wrong, I recognize the extreme privilege of my status as a highly educated Black woman, but I’m also keenly aware of the fact that these days, that might not count for much.

To counter a bit of the negativity that is threatening to take root in this blog entry, I want to share that I absolutely love teaching. Every semester I’ve had students come up to me and give me hugs, telling me how much they miss my class. I’m also one of only three people on my campus that can teach the new Intro to LGBT Studies course that we are offering, and how cool is that? I’m on track to finish the Ph.D. in five years, which is well above the national average of nine or ten for folks in certain humanities fields.  I love my project, and I have an extremely supportive and generous dissertation committee. I also have a really smart and dedicated group of friends who keep me grounded and expect me to get the thing done.

To be perfectly honest with you, my life is pretty golden right now, and I guess writing a little of this down has helped me to get off my pity pot.  I think that pity pots are ok for a few minutes of self-reflection and general gnashing of the teeth and ripping of the garments. However, to languish on the pot too long is certain death, figurative, if not literal. I’ve seen what death in a graduate program looks like: it looks like the folks who are still thinking about going on the  job market “next year” after ten years in a Ph.D. program. Or the folks who can regurgitate Lacan or Butler or Kant at the drop of a dime, but who have no original ideas. If this is the life they’ve chosen for themselves, so be it, but I promised myself when I came into this program that I would not become one of those people. As a 44 year-old Black woman, I can’t afford to be. I’ve also decided that when I’m dean (don’t you like how I’ve gone from cranky Ph.D. student to dean in a few sentences?), that I won’t allow this kind of tom-foolery in any of the programs that I’m responsible for.

So, enough with the pontificating, let’s get this party started. This diss ain’t gonna write itself.

What is Your Work?

And on this historic Inauguration Day, my sentiments are thus from my favorite poet, scholar, activist, Audre Lorde:

“What are the words you do not yet have? What do you need to say? What are the tyrannies you swallow day by day and attempt to make your own, until you will sicken and die of them, still in silence? Perhaps for some of you here today, I am the face of one of your fears. Because I am woman, because I am Black, because I am lesbian, because I am myself – a Black woman warrior poet doing my work – come to ask you, are you doing yours?”

And now for something completely different

I’m a bit new to this blogging thing, so please be patient with me while I collect my thoughts. I’m a black lesbian feminist academic activist, hoping to connect with persons of like mind for intellectually stimulating conversations.

Please let me know that you’re out there!