Could you tell me about your background and your work?
I lived in Los Angeles, and I really missed the Civil Rights Movement—I was trying my best to get in it. By the time I got to the South—I moved to Nashville in 1971, and by the time I got there, it was all over. But, going to an HBCU was just a great experience for me, because, there are no HBCUs in California, and…in elementary school, I can remember being the only Black kid in the class, and that was not good. And then, after Fisk I went to Boston. So, I went to HBCUs, had a wonderful time at Fisk, loved Fisk, and then went for my master’s in Boston, and it was real different from California, in terms of Black people not really being there. But I studied at Simmons College, which was an all-women’s college in Boston. I did a master’s in English. And I did what was the first master’s in African-American Studies at Boston University. That was a great program. And it was right at the time when the programs were really being challenged. With students saying, “this is what we want,” and administrators saying, “there’s nobody to teach it! What will you do with Black Studies? How you gonna get a job with that?”
Watching the Civil Rights marches on television and seeing everything they were doing, it was just like, “aw, man, I need to be in on that!”
And then, I needed a professor. I had to find people to teach those kind of classes, find people who were in the Black Arts Movement, such as Amiri Baraka. Not Ph.Ds, but certainly knew what they knew. And what we needed to know. And so, that was a really, really interesting time period, where the poetry, the people, who were active in the community were bringing their activism on campus. It was a real different kind of learning experience…
Now, I’m working on a book that is just about complete, on Alice Walker. ‘Cause you know in 2009, Emory got all of her papers. It’s like 271 boxes. So, I thought I was just about finished with the work, but we got the papers, and there was no way I was gonna finish the work without those, so it’s taken me that long to just plow my way through. So that’s my major interest.
African American literature, period, is what I’m interested in. Women’s literature in particular. And, I write poetry… I did an MFA at Goddard College, and just really, really enjoyed that. And wrote two books of poetry as a result of having done that.
How did you decide that you wanted to get involved with the Civil Rights Movement? Was your family into that kind of work, or were you just seeing it and wanting to be a part of it?
Just seeing it on TV. My family was part of the great migration that left the south, and so when they found out I was going to Fisk instead of UCLA they were like “are you out of your mind?! Why d’you think we moved out here?” But you know, watching the marches and seeing everything they were doing, it was just like, “aw, man, I need to be in on that!”
Part of the success of the Civil Rights Movement was that at that point in time television was in everyone’s living room, and so in the same way with the Vietnam War, it was right up front and in your face. Because if it was just in the news media, the response wouldn’t’ve been the same. When you read about it and when you see the pictures of people being washed out with water hoses and dogs let loose on ‘em—they could write about it, but to see it, it just really makes you say, “you gotta be on one side or the other!”
No, my mother was a nurse, and she wanted me to stay in California. And she just did not understand why somebody would go back to the South. But in the end, she came back. In 1990 they came back here. Because Los Angeles was turning into Mississippi. But you know—now, there’s a turnaround migration. People going back to the South. But they moved out and a lot of white people moved out too because the skinheads in Southern California. And I tried saying “you see? You see mom, you can’t run, you gotta stay and fight!” And she’d say, “you don’t know what you’re talking about.”
You know, racism is everywhere.
What have your experiences with race been in the academy?
Being Black in the academy is not really different from being Black in corporate America or anywhere else, but I think that on some level it is different because being in the academy allows for a certain kind of academic freedom that is not awarded to someone say who’s in corporate America. So, for the most part, teaching your class is what you decide you’re going to teach in your class. And, particularly, if you’re in the private sector as opposed to a public or state university, you have that kind of freedom.
But then when you do teach those courses that are clearly Black-focused courses, you get feedback that your colleagues don’t get. You get course evaluations that say “all she talks about is Black people!” And the class is called “African-American Studies.” That kind of feedback. Or, when I teach literature, I’m teaching three texts by Black women, and I’ll get feedback like “I didn’t know this was a women’s studies class! All we did was read works by women writers.” So, that kind of foolishness is something that you can expect, because that’s how narrowly educated the students are when they come here.
One way to really discourage a person and keep them from excelling is for them to be isolated. So, it’s really important that there be more than one Black person at any institution for moral support.
Some of them have never even had a Black professor. And so sometimes you get students who call you “Miss” or “Mrs,” and I’m like “I wouldn’t be here if I weren’t a doctor, so you can say that or you can say ‘Professor.’” They’re kind of put off by that. On two levels—they may do that to white women, I’m not sure. But they don’t do that to men at all! The miss, or the missus, in the academy is off-putting, but it’s one of those things that, it happens.
On the other hand, you know, if you’re in a space where you are the expert on what you’re doing, and if that institution values it, then you’re still free to do what you do. And in many ways, you’re free to look how you look. Whereas, in corporate America, you know, suited down, hair in place—for me it would be a very constricting context to have to function in…
And I think that the people who came along, like I did, after African American Studies was fought for and won, and after affirmative action was fought for and won, are really very fortunate. Because I can imagine that before those things happened, it must have been excruciating, if a person happened to be in what was not a Historically Black College. You understand, there were people who were not, but, the kind of pressure that they were under, I can’t even imagine it. Affirmative action, and student revolts, and the Black Arts movement, and all of that, enabled a critical mass to be at various places. And that’s really important.
One way to really discourage a person and keep them from excelling is for them to be isolated. So, it’s really important that there be more than one person at any institution for support. For moral support. Emory is supposed to have one of the highest numbers of Black faculty—definitely in the South, and maybe throughout the country—and this is not that many at all. And getting young professors there, and being able to mentor them, is just, you know—you can only do so much, and there’s only so many people there!…You cannot expect the handful of Black faculty there to mentor all of the people who are Black. They may not even be in the same discipline! So other people need to step up! So, you know, those people with good will do step up, and there are only a few.
And if affirmative action is struck down, I mean, I just can’t even imagine what the academy is going to start to look like. Because it doesn’t look that good as it is. But the thing that’s always amazing to me is, I get students at Emory who don’t even have a clue, number 1) what Affirmative Action is, and number 2) I get Black students who seem to be very resentful. They want you to know immediately, “I’m not here because of affirmative action.” I’ll be like, “okay, why are you here? The first person that looked like you couldn’t even enter until 1968! So how do you think you got here?”
After talking it through, I understand what they’re saying; they’re saying that their test scores were good, and their grades were good, and they don’t wanna be looked down on ‘cause they’re Black. But understand that all you are here because of affirmative action! And it’s just surprising to me that they neither know, nor appreciate.
I had one young man that told me, “well I don’t care if they strike it down.” I’m like, “no! You don’t? Okay. So, you might have children who would like to go where you went, and won’t be able to.” [He responded,] “They’ll be smart enough.” I’m like, you don’t get it. You just absolutely don’t get it.
There’re a lot of people who don’t understand, what would it mean to lose affirmative action, what it will mean to have all these voting rights pushed back—they don’t get it. So, we need to do a better job of educating and getting them to understand why was there even a Black Arts Movement. How it worked in tandem with the Black Power Movement. What does that mean.
I mean it’s a little bit like the situation with feminism too—people want to disown the rights that others fought for because they think we’re done now.
Yeah, and you know, I think the thing with the murders of Black children and all the violence, you know, it’s heartbreaking, but I think it has also opened some eyes. Because I think that a lot of young people are saying, “oh! We thought all this happened with Emmett Till! And it couldn’t be happening now.”
I mean it definitely opened my eyes…
Right, it’s been eye-opening. After 2008, with the election of President Obama, lots of people still believe that we have now moved beyond race. This is a post-racial society and everything’s good. Just have to do your best, and you will be accepted.
Students on Emory’s campus have been organizing, and they’ve been more politically aware than I have ever seen them. Because, about 90% of Emory’s students come there with the intention of going to medical school. And the other 10% are going to law school. Now, clearly that doesn’t happen! But that’s the mindset. So, if they’re not going to medicine, then they’re going to business school. And they just haven’t been activists. But they are becoming. And the social environment, that’s fostering that.
What do you think of these student protesters on campus? What do you think they’re aiming for? What do you think they want to see? Do you think that’s achievable?
The students at Emory have been meeting with the president and the director of campus life, because what they want is just an environment that is not hostile…From what I understand, there’s some kind of social media [Yik Yak] where people are not identified and they get on there and they say horrible things—I think one student told me there’s someone that said something to the effect that “if they don’t like it, if they think that environment here is not good, why don’t they leave? We don’t want ‘em here in the first place.” You know, things like that.
I think that you don’t expect people to change their minds, you just want them to change their behavior.
And, can it be changed? It can be changed, it has to be changed from the top—that’s why they’re meeting with the president. It can be changed easier at a private institution, I think, than it can at a public institution. Because at a public institution, there are those issues of free speech and whatever, and the guidelines cannot be as clearly, or, say, as narrowly defined as they can at a private institution. In other words, at Emory, we can say, “things that are offensive will not be tolerated.” And as a private institution, you know that before you come. And so, if you think that you’re not going to be able to adhere to the kind of community that we say we have established, then you’re free to go elsewhere. But in the situation with the state where you’re paying your taxes to go to the institution, it becomes a little bit different. I don’t know about the nuances of that sense of community at a place that’s governed by state officials and taxpayers. But I know that at Emory, they can set the guidelines and not tolerate anything that is out of alignment with the community that they want to have created. And I think that they are in the process of doing that.
Is that gonna solve every single solitary issue? No. But it will create an atmosphere that’s different. And I think that’s what the students are wanting. I think that they would be rather naive to think, “okay, so we fixed this whole thing so no one is ever going to insult us, and nothing racist is ever gonna happen. No, that’s not it. If something racist happens, the response needs to be swift and severe. And when you get that swift and severe response, those things will stop happening.
Does that mean that people will no longer be racist? No. But they will keep their mouths shut! And that’s what the students are looking for. And an administration that will say “we’re not going to tolerate this, and if you don’t believe it, try us, and you’ll be out of here.” And they can do that. They can absolutely do that.
I remember when I first came to Emory, the president had been very involved in the Civil Rights Movement, and he talked about creating the “beloved community.” And when people did something that was racist or sexist—I remember one time these guys got expelled because this foolish fraternity prank—they wore these t-shirts that were very insulting to women. They put ‘em out. The atmosphere wouldn’t tolerate it. So it didn’t happen.
I think that’s what they’re looking for. And I think that’s what anybody is looking for…I think that you don’t expect people to change their minds, you just want them to change their behavior. If they don’t like you, they wanna look down on you, go ahead! But don’t create an atmosphere where I feel like less than a person.