In Praise of non-Famous Black Women

15 Nov

As I ran on the treadmill this morning at Duke University, realizing that I am presently a doctoral student in the English program, preparing for my preliminary exams (some call them “comprehensive”) and teaching a course to a group of first years, I realized that I was literally not supposed to be there…on the treadmill…running…at Duke.  You see, while studying during my undergraduate days, I was horribly unprepared for the rigors of the institution, the culture shock that forced me to reconsider class – I thought I was “middle class” until I realized that my parents were much closer to less-than middle class; that money did not flow freely; that keeping up with the Joneses was simply silly for me.  I did not know how to survive, how to be happy.  I was a black, gay Pentecostal boy, founder of the New Spirit of Penn Gospel Choir who couldn’t seem to get my life together.  Academically, I was flailing.  There was that one semester when my GPA reached the depths of a 1.3 for the semester.

But anyway.  I thought again today how my survival at the various universities I have attended – University of Pennsylvania, Emory University, and now Duke University – would not have been possible if it were not for the love, support and guidance of those whom are generally overlooked, whom the university thinks expendable and easily replaceable.  As  my Facebook status attested this morning: had it not been for the administrative staff – black women – at these universities (secretaries, housekeepers, front-desk staff, card-swipers at cafeterias, etc), I would not have been able to graduate.  I think the people who have helped me survive need to be praised, need to be cherished for their ongoing and unseen (and unwarranted) contributions to the universities.

This is not sophisticated prose.  This is me trying to say thank you.

There is one such Ms. NameRemoved at Penn who made sure I ate even when I had no meal plan because I could not afford one.  She would take my school ID, slide it in the machine upside down to give the appearance that it was a legit validation and entry into the cafeteria.  She had knowledge of the inner workings of the institution that she was able to flout and a love of others that she wanted to sustain.  I appreciate her and what I would think of under the rubric of “ministry” (for when I was hungry, she fed me…seriously).

There is one such Ms. Cora Ingrum, an unsung hero at Penn both in the Engineering School and in the larger university system.  The head of the office of minority programming, Ms. Ingrum spoke to my parents roughly once a week during my first year because they were concerned for my well-being.  She never worried me by telling me my parents were worried then.  She waited.  She encouraged me…daily.  She hugged me a lot.  She was so much more than an advisor and counselor.  She embodied (and still embodies) the type of love ethic that I long to display to my students today.  I left engineering as a discipline a very long time ago but I still am connected with Ms. Ingrum because she showed me how to move through university systems caring for others and self.

There is one such Ms. Donna Hampton.  Words, literally, could not describe who she was and is to me.  I’m pretty sure she’s the first person I ever shared my fictional writing with, the first person who allowed me to be gay and black and Christian and contradictory all at the same time, all while loving me and listening to me and making me think I had a voice that should be heard.  I would walk into the office at Penn, see her sitting and would talk to her for hours.  She was a therapist before I knew that therapy was a good thing and a friend that I never knew I needed.

There is one such Jennifer Stiles.  I would walk into Du Bois College House and talk to her for hours at night.  And I mean hours.  From 4 until midnight.  She taught me so much more about being human, about recognizing the connections we make with others, about being truthful and honest with self and others.  She made me laugh a lot, made me angry a lot and made me think all of the time.  That front desk at Du Bois recounts too many memories.

There is one such Jamila Garret-Bell.  The first club I ever went to in Atlanta was with Jamila and she still tells me how I exclaimed (I was drunk) “this McDonald’s is the FRESHEST McDonald’s I’ve ever had in my life!”  That to say that I felt really comfortable around Jamila.  I’m a talker and I would sit in the chair next to her desk at Candler and talk about everything and nothing.  She was one of the first people at the seminary to know that I liked dudes and she never judged me for it, which was something I expected around every corner because “jesus school” was so problematic to me.  She showed me how to be graceful and gracious, how to have poise and tact.  She showed me how to smile in the face of hardship and how to move forward.

There is one such Ayanna Abi Kyles.  What could I say?  She did (and does) mean the world to me and I am forever grateful for encountering her, her love, her ministry.  I truly do believe Ayanna is the embodiment of self-love and exudes this with her dealings with other people.  If I’d sit and talk to Jamila for an hour, I’d leave her chair to go talk to Ayanna for hours more.  Ayanna saw in me worth and value that I could not see in myself.  Ayanna saw in me the desire to love others when I could not recognize myself in the mirror.  She would listen to me recount heartbreak after heartbreak, would allow me to be despondent, would let me be sad.  Ayanna would press against me when I was wrong (and I was wrong much of the time; most of the time?) but would never leave me thinking I was irredeemable.  She always let me know that she had my back, that she loved me and was there for me.  And when I was set to graduate from seminary, she told me that she wanted to be the one to present me with the stole during the “Sacred Worth” commencement ceremony because she wanted to honor and acknowledge the erotic life-world in which I exist and to give me strength for the world to come.

These stories, of course, are the tip of the iceberg.  I could say too much more about each of these women.  I post here because they enact for me what it means to be feminist, what it means to be womanist.  They are love, joy, peace, long-suffering in the flesh and they dwell among us.  They are the social world of the university that, many could attest, all others to survive.

Someone should write this book.  The book about auxiliary staff at colleges and universities whose kind smiles, warm hellos, and “meet me at this time in my office to discuss your financial aid” with a wink and nod allowed us to persist.

So this is an invitation.  Tell your story.  Pay homage.

I am interested in a project, quite literally, that lets us tell our story and lets us share our stories with those who have so effected us.  I am interested in having them tell their stories to us.  I am interested in critical dialogue because there is knowledge that they have that we need; they shared it with us implicitly and it’d be great to be explicit.

Some ideas:

  • contacting the university alumni/ae publication and request space to share these types of stories; maybe a special edition
  • an edited volume of sorts; collecting and sharing
  • something like the New Orleans Neighborhood Story Sharing Project (http://www.neighborhoodstoryproject.org/) – localized, small, intimate but does the same work of collecting story and sharing with others
  • something else?

What are your thoughts?

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11 Responses to “In Praise of non-Famous Black Women”

  1. crunktastic November 15, 2010 at 11:38 PM #

    My one was Tracy Blandon-Allen, program administrator in the ILA at Emory. She listened to my complaints and tales of woe, affirmed my life and presence, and acted as my advisor, since she clearly knows the inter-workings of the ILA better than folks who wrote the ding dang handbook. She is underappreciated by many who work there, but she has seen more than a few students of color come through the ILA, and been an awesome blessing to us all.

  2. Renina November 16, 2010 at 9:11 AM #

    Sooooo Awesome.

    I saw something last night and was like…let just saw…there was some posturing happening…

    The person that comes to mind is my 5th grade teacher Mrs. Alfred, who stepped in when my family fell apart AND who recommended that I go to summer prep school at Head Royce. My academic trajectory changed that year. #Ummhmm.

    ~R

  3. summer m. November 16, 2010 at 9:29 AM #

    ashon, this is such a sweet homage. we should all definitely do this.

  4. Michelle November 16, 2010 at 10:25 AM #

    Two of the women you mentioned also helped me in undergrad and I agree that not enough is done to sing their praises. When our mothers, aunts, and sisters were unavailable, these women stepped in an became our village. What Ms. Unnamed did was akin to harboring runaways on the Railroad; she risked her job for us and many of us needed her.

    Jennifer reminded me of my mother. She was almost a spitting image of her. That comforted me in ways she didnt even know.

    You know I’m down to write, so whatever you need me to do, I got you.

  5. alexis November 16, 2010 at 2:14 PM #

    I am so on board with the book project!!!! 365 Ways a Black Woman has Saved Your Life! YES! Let’s have that editorial meeting TODAY!!!! <3

  6. Amber November 16, 2010 at 3:22 PM #

    This post was beautifully written and it is something that I realized and thought about often when I was in undergrad. There was a strong network of women of color among staff and faculty that was so inspiring and proved to be essential in getting me through those four years successfully. Success really is the key word, because these individuals pushed me to be better than I thought I could be and saw the unlimited potential that I still have trouble remembering is there sometimes.

    Thanks for this. It touched me in a deep way. :)

  7. CaitieCat November 17, 2010 at 7:03 PM #

    Thank you for this beautiful piece of writing.

  8. Nikki November 17, 2010 at 11:38 PM #

    Ashon, I totally co-sign this project and the loving, generative thrust behind it! Thank you for making space for this kind of appreciation, my friend.

  9. drlawmom November 18, 2010 at 12:31 AM #

    Thank you for this. My three children, all of whom attend or have attended top colleges, have told me stories of just such women: who finessed their financial aid, found them housing, helped them get a job or even, remembered how they liked a meal prepared in the campus cafeteria. I am grateful to the sisters who treated my children like their own.

  10. susiemaye November 19, 2010 at 3:06 PM #

    Thank you so much for this, Ashon. Moving, poignant, on point. Definitely down for a project that collects and celebrates these stories.

  11. dantresomi November 19, 2010 at 3:31 PM #

    dope post
    and yes i too, can write a book about these unsung heroes

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