Category Archives: Identity

Happy Birthday, Ida!

Ida B Wells-Barnett

Ida B. Wells-Barnett

On this day—July 16—158 years ago, Ida Bell Wells, a tireless and formidable crusader, was born.

As an investigative journalist, Wells informed, bullied, and cajoled the readership of Black publications to fight for their schools, their rights, their dignity, and their lives against a racist and segregated Southern culture.

Writing for church publications and early editorials using the pen name, Iola, she is best known for her anti-lynching editorials and speeches, though she was a founder or prominent member of every civil rights organization of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Famous during her own lifetime and revered after her death, she fought for racial justice, women’s suffrage, and human rights with both intelligence and heart.

In addition to her pamphlets and editorials, she excelled as a speaker at home and abroad, exposing the shame of racism in America, particularly as concretized and illustrated by the brutal lynchings and mass murderings of Black people. This diamond of a woman had many precious facets, and if she were pressed to identify any flaw, it might be that she had human feelings and could be hurt by the slights and betrayals of people who should have been some of her strongest supporters. Despite the hurt and sensitivity, she soldiered on, standing in the front lines of the cause even as she faithfully carried out her duties as a wife and mother.

Reflecting on the extraordinary life and monumental achievements of Ida B. Wells-Barnett, I see her as a beacon that shines the way and a staff that supports all of us who want to gain the right to call ourselves the sons and daughters of Ida.

Ode to Gwen B.

I still perspire when I think about how anxious I was as I sat waiting for my first interview after graduating from college. While I waited for the principal to see me, I tried to push back thoughts about not belonging at this predominantly white suburban high school. I tried not to think about how different my background probably was from everyone else who worked here. Who else was black and from the west side of Chicago whose only qualification for the job beyond the college degree was a traumatic student teaching experience at an all-white high school in southern Illinois?

I was sweating out my interview clothes as I sat in a chair with my back to a glass wall separating this office from the hallway. I was facing a long counter behind which at least half a dozen efficient-looking white women were engaged in various activities—at the counter responding to all entrants, typing on typewriters, or working in file cabinets.

I had been in the building for about half an hour and had not seen another black person. As I contemplated this fact—as if on cue—a tall, beautiful, black woman with short red hair cut and shaped beautifully breezed into the area smiling as if she had just heard a joke. She greeted everyone by their first name and inquired about their well-being. Everyone and the entire space seemed to brighten to match this woman’s mood. As a chorus of greetings were returned, I thought I heard my name. This startled me, and then I realized they were addressing “the other Gwen,” a descriptor that would be heard frequently once I was hired. How random that both of us would teach in the English Department. Not only that, but we both married men named Charles.

Gwen B. and I were among the very few black teachers and administrators in this predominantly white suburban high school in the late 1960s that was transitioning to become more racially diverse. There were tensions at every level as the community was adjusting to the change. Lucky for me, Gwen B. was “my person” during these first years of my career. She was friend, counselor, mentor, and coach. She immediately took me under her wing to do what we now call “onboarding.” She helped me understand the context in which we were working as competent teachers whose first responsibility was to our students. She modeled for me that we could be proud that we were black and also get to know and accept people who wanted to be allies. Most of all, she stressed that we didn’t get paid enough not to have fun.

I still marvel at my luck in being “adopted” by Gwen B. because everyone loved her and wanted to be in her presence. Light from her orbit enveloped me and made me feel and be regarded as someone who belonged. The teachers’ lounge was a fun place to be when Gwen B. was there. She loved to tell funny stories and make people laugh at themselves. She would always crack herself up at her own pithy one-liners. She was the party.

Because she was my confidante, I shared embarrassing moments with her, sometimes to my regret since she always found them to be funnier than I thought they should be. One day at school I fell and slid all the way down the stairs on my back. Luckily, there were no witnesses. I proceeded to my classroom and began writing on the board, Hearing some muffled giggling. I turned and asked the students what they were finding so funny. Laughing so hard he could hardly get the words out, a student asked, “Miss Jordan, who’s been walking on your back?” It was funny and I had to laugh. I told Gwen B. about falling, getting dirt on my back, and what happened in the classroom. I lived to regret telling her because she never missed an opportunity to ask me, “Miss Jordan, who’s been walking on your back?”

Gwen D and Gwen B smiling while sitting on couch togetherGwen B. was not only my mentor, coach, and counselor regarding my job, she was also the kind of friend who kept my spirits up as I planned a wedding. She coerced her husband, Charles, into taking our wedding photos. She persuaded her retired babysitter to take care of one more baby, so I could return to work. There were no major events during the first years of my career in which Gwen B. was not there as a confidante and supporter. I like to think that the supportive friendship was mutual, which is why after many years and much geographical separation, we never lost contact.

Lest someone think that Gwen B. is a natural nurturer offering sweet words of comfort and wisdom, I must correct that image. I always found it fascinating that this woman, laughing all the while, could turn any conversation into a litany of expletives that flowed like a river. I seldom used profanity except after a conversation with Gwen B., and then I could not help myself. Her big personality was infectious, and I wanted to catch some of her joy.

Gwen B. is a rare gemstone, the depths of which are yet to be discovered. Her defining traits that had the greatest imprint on me as a professional are courage and humor. To me, no amount of education and training could have been as effective in supporting my success as having “my person” with whom I could share anything and expect that she would help me discover within myself the strength and courage I needed to help me move forward.

Thank you, Gwen B., for being “my person” when I needed you most.

Race in the United States, as Reflected in the U.S. Census – A Glacial Rate of Change

Some say that demography is destiny. In the United States, race is destiny.

Clearly evidence of a racist social construct, “race” depends on who you are in the politics of government. From the time of the Constitutional Convention, the matter of race has been central to the decennial census practice. The census was put into place to assure proper representation and is today connected with the distribution of nearly $1 trillion in federal funding for myriad programs.

At the inception of the practice of taking the census, there was shameful, self-serving political debate about whether or not enslaved people would be counted as persons or property for the sake of levying taxes and determining representation. The compromise that stood for nearly a century was to count those who were enslaved as three-fifths of a person. Without a doubt, in the minds of these leaders all men are not created equal.

While enslaved persons were not counted as full persons for the sake of the census, indigenous persons were not counted at all. In fact, according to data collected by census-takers, the United States consisted of only white and black people for its first 100 years.

This was in part because census-takers determined race rather than allowing individuals to self-identify. In so doing, white people were recorded as homogeneous in their whiteness, while black people were recorded as free or enslaved. Additionally, black people could be recorded as mixed, with crude terms used to attempt to determine just how many drops of black blood a light-skinned black person might have. As late as 1930, the “one-drop rule” was included in instructions to ensure that interracial persons were determined to be black, “no matter how small the percentage of [black] blood.”

While the questions and language have slowly evolved since the first U.S. Census was taken in 1790, they always seem to lag behind the times, never fully reflecting the current reality and individual preferences of the people. It was not until 1960 that individuals could identify their own race, and it was not until the year 2000 – more than 200 years after the first census – that the questionnaire included a “multiple-race” option by which one could better reflect one’s identity by selecting more than one race. If the census is the marker, this America evolves century by century.

As part of this glacial evolution, for the 2020 U.S. Census, respondents are asked to identify not only their race but their “racial origins.” Thinking positively about this change, disaggregating the data collected on race and ethnicity theoretically has the potential to create a picture of the multiple diversities that make up this complex nation. Understanding the history of the political ends served by census questions, however, raises some understandable concerns.

censusThe question about “racial origins” (whatever that means) would seem easier on the surface to respond to for some groups than it is for others. For example, respondents who identify as “white” are given the following examples to choose from for racial origins: German, Irish, English, Italian, Lebanese, Egyptian, etc. (Despite this seeming simplicity, however, one does wonder whether the homogeneity with which the census has treated “whiteness” to date, might still give people in this category pause in being asked to identify origins of which they may not be aware or ever given much thought to.)

Asian or Pacific Islanders are given specific checkboxes instead of being asked to write in choices from examples, unless selecting “Other Asian (Pakistani Cambodian, Hmong, etc.)” or “Other Pacific Islander (Tongan, Fijian, Marshallese; etc.).”

It starts getting more complicated with those who indicate that they are “Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish.” While the first part of being able to further identify as Mexican, Mexican American, Chicano; Puerto Rican; Cuban; or another origin {Salvadoran, Dominican, Colombian, Guatemalan, Spaniard, Ecuadoran, etc.) is easy, then comes the question about race. The U.S. Census Bureau argues that Hispanic origin is not a race and that those of Hispanic origin must also be specific about their race. It’s expected that indignation and confusion will abound.

I empathize with those who affirm “Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish origin,” and then face a question about race. If I affirm “Black or African American” for my identity and then see these sample choices for origin—African American, Jamaican, Haitian, Nigerian, Ethiopian, Somali, etc.—I am inclined to write “not applicable.” It makes no sense for me to indicate “African American” as my racial origin because I’ve already checked that box for race. Also, specifying the entire continent of Africa as an origin is not in alignment with others from the continent who can select from specific countries within the continent as their origin. For my racial origin, it makes sense to me that I would write in “Mississippi, Tennessee, and Alabama,” because, as I discovered in exploring census data from the 19th and 20th centuries, my family’s known history goes back no further than these three Southern states.

Twist, turn, bob, and weave as it may, America’s shameful history keeps showing up. This time it surfaces when there is an attempt by the federal government to tease out the diversity among people who live in the United States. What’s more, the ever-changing demographic questions for all the racial categories except “white” raise important questions related to data meant to be used as a comparator over time. Sadly, evolution from racism is, indeed, a slow process in this America.

 

 

Recontextualizing the story of women

Women have inherited a context in which race, class, and gender enter with them, treating them as if they’re guests in the house of opportunity that women before them paid for and left for them to build upon and expand. Some enter the house and find that they are prevented from going to the upper levels of the house because they couldn’t break through the glass ceiling. Others realize that they could not even stand up to their full height in the house because the ceiling of expectations was so low.

Although traveling different roads to get there, all women who enter the house have a story to tell. Women’s History Month 2020 is a good time for women to share these stories and to recontextualize the barriers that have prevented them from realizing their full potential. When women recontextualize the conditions and circumstances of their existence, race and gender can become strengths that stimulate a collective vigor to support and help each other succeed in all the houses they enter.

Women who came before cracked opened doors through which women who followed could squeeze. Because of the work of those who have come before, women today are obliged to ensure that there is no turning back, but a continuous reaching back to move the next woman forward. Will women of today accept their role in the story of women? When women recontextualize the story of women, the house is on the high ground and all the rooms have a favorable view.

 

 

From Being Charming to Being a Contender, Part 2

When MSNBC journalist Rachel Maddow interviewed Elizabeth Warren on the day she withdrew from the race to be the Democratic presidential nominee, the tone was pessimistic about whether a woman would ever be elected President of the United States, and how devastating such pessimism would be for women now and the young girls who are seeing this as their future.

It’s not for lack of trying that a woman has not been elected president of the United States. Though history was made in 2020 when six women were candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination, seven women before them also ran for president. The first woman to run for president—though it might be disputed by some—was Victoria Woodhull, who ran as a candidate for the Equal Rights Party in 1872. It would be almost a century until the following women dared stand for the office again:

  • Margaret Chase Smith (Republican, 1964);
  • Shirley Chisholm (Democrat ,1972);
  • Patricia Schroeder (Democrat, 1988);
  • Elizabeth Dole (Republican, 2000);
  • Carol Moseley Braun (Democrat, 2004); and
  • Hillary Rodham Clinton (Democrat, 2016).

pictures of women who have pursued US presidential nomination--Victoria Woodhull, Margaret Chase Smith, Shirley Chisholm, Patricia Schroeder, Elizabeth Dole, Carol Moseley Braun, Hillary Rodham Clinton, Kirsten Gillebrand, Marianne Willamson, Kamala Harris, Amy Klobachaur, Elizabeth Warren, Tulsi Gabbard

Clinton, the most successful of these candidates, was interviewed by CNN’s Fareed Zakaria for International Women’s Day. When asked about the failed attempts by women to become President of the United States, Clinton described some of the reasons for the failure:

  • unconscious bias;
  • a double standard;
  • objectification of women;
  • women not being what we expect them to be; and
  • unconscious alarm bells going off when a woman wants to lead.

We still need to work out how to “truly respect and value women in the workplace,” she said, “…how best to empower women to be the best they can be under whatever circumstances they find themselves.”

Let the church say, “Amen!”

From Being Charming to Being a Contender, Part 1

It was 36 years ago this month that the first collegewide task force for diversity on which I served hosted a Women’s Week program. After a year of meetings with faculty about the need to make the curriculum inclusive, we were thrilled that Peggy McIntosh from the Wellesley Centers for Women had agreed to be our guest speaker.  Her papers on white privilege had catapulted her to the top of the A-list as a speaker on issues of equity and privilege.

It was not until after this program that our task force realized what a dismal failure we had been in helping faculty to see that educating for diversity could revitalize their work, affording them the opportunity to rethink knowledge, evaluate their teaching methods, and effectively put students’ learning at the center of their efforts. Disappointingly, it seemed that few faulty beyond the twelve of us on the task force saw the point in making their syllabi and the curriculum more inclusive. The hardest blow—and most debilitating comment—from a faculty member after the Women’s Week program was that Peggy McIntosh was interesting and charming, but what did her presentation have to do with them?

This was not the first or the last time that I would hear a woman described as “charming.” A synonym for charming is “likable”—the standard to which women who run for high political office seem to be held. By contrast, many women are looking forward to the realization of what former candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination Amy Klobuchar said: “I think what matters most is if you’re smart, if you’re competent, and if you get things done.”

Role models: What do your actions teach when you think no one is watching?

When students stray from the path toward their goal of completing college, it is not usually because they lack the skills to do college work. Motivation may be lacking, and they may not have examples in their lives that demonstrate the characteristics needed to accomplish the extraordinary. Many ordinary folks who have reached their goals forget who and what motivated and inspired them to do more and be more.

While everyone won’t have a desire or an opportunity to serve or be recognized as a mentor, we all can think of ourselves as role models because we never know who is watching and learning from us. By our behavior, we can promote the idea that each student has the potential to experience their own potency and ability.

What makes a role model a role model? It depends on the context. Although I didn’t know it when I was a preteen, my role models were two multifaceted women for whom I had conflicting feelings. Sometimes, I judged them harshly. Even so, I admired how strong they were and how hard they worked.

Miss L was my father’s wife and not my mother. She owned a small store called a sundry, for it sold various items, from snacks and soft drinks to headache medicines, antacids, and the like. The sundry was at the end of a street – just before it curved around the bend – in the Orange Mound community of Memphis, Tennessee. It was across from the park and a few doors down from the Orange Mound Cab Company. During the day, Miss L managed the sundry, doing her bookkeeping in the evenings, often until the wee hours of the morning. Despite her hard work during the day and bookkeeping at night, there apparently was not enough business and income to keep the sundry going.

After a series of low-paying waitressing and domestic jobs, Miss L landed a job as the head domestic worker for a wealthy family on the other side of town. She became indispensable to this family, who bought her a new station wagon every two years for the safe chauffeuring of their children to school and their various after-school activities. Miss L took care of the family even when she had a day off. She would stay late on Thursday nights to cook all the meals for the weekend. She never missed a day of work and always looked impeccable in her white uniform. She looked like a nurse going to work in the mornings.

When she was at home, I don’t recall her sleeping much or sitting down to eat a meal. She would take little naps and nibble on food while she worked. Her respite was when she would take time to read the newspaper. When she went out during her times off, she dressed stylishly and never skimped on her make-up. Because she went to the beauty parlor on a regular schedule, her hair always looked the same. No bad hair days.

I also watched my paternal grandmother, Mama Rosie. She was less than 5-foot tall and weighed about 100 pounds. Despite her size, she was strong. She had had to be to raise four sons alone.

There were only two options available for Mama Rosie to make money, and she took both. She would get up at 3:00 or 4:00 a. m. to join other women and men in the back of a truck to be driven from the city of Memphis to the fields where cotton was in need of picking. I remember riding with her in the back of the truck at least one time.

When Mama Rosie would come to see me on Saturdays or Sundays when I was 5 or 6 years old, my other grandparents and the neighbors liked to tell stories about her. They would laugh as they talked about how it was not humanly possible for a woman of Mama Rosie’s size to pick as much cotton as she did and carry bags of cotton weighing hundreds of pounds. They teased her, saying that she was making all the money because her sacks of cotton were so full.

When she was not in the cotton fields, Mama Rosie was cleaning houses and taking care of the children of people who had financial means. She sometimes had domestic jobs that required her to “stay on the place.” Whether working in the cotton fields or cleaning houses, I never heard her say she was tired or didn’t want to do whatever her job was.

While Mama Rosie didn’t go far in school, she made the most of her time there, learning all there was to learn, including reading and writing – skills some other women in her age group didn’t have. Mama Rosie always talked to me about how important it was for me to learn all I could while in school.

Neither of these women knew that I was watching them. They didn’t know that they were teaching me just by doing their job. They didn’t know that they were instilling in me a reservoir of strength that I could call on when I thought the work was too hard and the time to my goal was too long. What they did for me was to normalize working hard to achieve my goals.

What I didn’t learn from them was that there is more to life than hard work. I didn’t learn that work was not the be all and end all. Nevertheless, I owe my work ethic to these role models who never knew that I was watching them.