THE BLOG
10/20/2010 05:39 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Teaching Black Feminism and Paying it Forward

For as long as I have been teaching (almost 13 years), I have used Audre Lorde's Sister Outsider in one of my courses. Nesha Haniff, the University of Michigan Center for African-American Studies professor who first introduced me to Lorde, had also brought Paolo Friere's Pedagogy of the Oppressed and Nawal El Saadawi's Woman at Point Zero, among other texts, into my world and changed me forever.

An unapologetic, self-proclaimed feminist, the Trinidadian-born Haniff was adamant about conscientizing her students to the disjunctures between theory and practice. She believed that we could do something about it even in the academy. Her teaching, a gift, was influenced by Friere and centered around a service-learning based pedagogy of action -- a practice that is often at odds with the institutional structures within which she operates. In its latest rendition, Haniff's POA focuses specifically on HIV education in South Africa. She continues to attract students determined to engage with and be accountable to the communities they study. Her impact on my professional trajectory is unquestionable. It's usually in my teaching, definitely in my writing and all over my performance.

In the Black Feminist Thoughts and Practices (BFTP) course that I sometimes teach at Wesleyan University, I often begin with Friere. We always read Audre Lorde. Over the years, student after student have clung to Lorde's fierceness and directness. Her words remain timeless and become lyrical armor that those on the margins have adopted as theirs. Whether they were hypervisible, invisible, identified as blacks, whites, bi-racial, Asian, Caribbean, Natives, queers, straight, working-class or reluctant-to-admit elites, when confronted with challenges to their identities on a college campus, Lorde offered insight into how to defy some of the restrictions they experienced. And these days, as young people in colleges and universities across the country are bullied for their sexualities and others in torment use very desperate measures to escape their various entrapments, empowering self-definition and support could not be more crucial. Indeed, individuation within an institution (e.g. family, work, etc.) has always been painful for anyone whose existence defies legitimized norms.

A very proud Haitian-American (who doesn't shun the begrudged diaspora label), self-identified black feminist, trained anthropologist but accidental academic (long story), performance and multi-media artist who doesn't fully belong in any one community, I am quite used to resisting other people's attempt and need to socially incarcerate me.

Lorde's words have always resonated with me and helped me to navigate well disciplined expectations in academe. I have used them as my email tagline when structural pressures threaten to suffocate me especially through what anthropologist Faye V. Harrison so aptly refers to as the mammification of black women in academe. Its manifestations are at times as overt as they are subtle, ranging from the continuous navigation of the vagaries of being "the only one" around the table who is expected to conform (from the add color and stir model), to what Kristen Lee Olson calls the "unconscious consciousness" of those who think they get it, to repeated structural neglect and the expectation that because of who we are (black women), what we study (God forbid black women) and care about (Hell no! It better not be Black Studies of any kind), we will, and too often do, make greater sacrifices for the institution. As a result, our triple burden, which is often acknowledged in theory, places us on the tail-end of a gendered and racialized division of labor. Some institutions do handle this better than others. Still, it is this historical practice that has in part rendered senior black women something of an "endangered species" in academia. As English scholar, black feminist critic Ann duCille and others have repeatedly pointed out, this process has been particularly harmful both literally and figuratively to black feminists.

Knowing this, I look to the future rather cautiously with echoes of trepidation all around me. I also know that my very presence and successes (tenure, etc) where I am is due to the efforts and dedicated mentoring of those who came before me who continue to pave the way. In a sense, because I still believe in the struggle, I accept some responsibility to those who are junior to me. A reluctant matriarch, who seriously questions what it means to be a role model, I do so in part knowing that their successes will surpass mine and they will and ought to confront different challenges.

I also know only too well that in many instances black women are still continually defined through racist and socially limited lenses. I recall the words of a BFTP student who, several years ago, stated that she was just tired of the four to five stereotypes that she had to choose from every single day.

My cautious optimism stems mainly from an engaged practice--the strategic revival of Audre Lorde's fierceness and determination every time I recall her words: "if I didn't define myself for myself, I would be crunched into other peoples' fantasies for me and eaten alive".

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