Nine years ago I began my undergraduate degree at York University. I was 17 years old and went straight from high school into my university career feeling incredibly confident that my major in Political Science would lead smoothly and directly into law school and a subsequent career in the field of international law (clearly things did not happen this way). Alongside the mandatory courses I took in that first year such as Intro to Political Science and Global Politics I also selected a Humanities course that I needed in order to graduate. Even as a child, I have never been a fan of mornings…so it was with some hesitation that I selected a class that occurred at 8:30am every Friday morning…but the description of the course had me fascinated so much more than any of my Political Science classes. I kept reading and re-reading it over and over again…it was called Cultures of Resistance in the Americas:
This course addresses the ways in which diasporic black peoples have responded to and resisted their enslaved and subordinated status in the Americas. Resistance is first addressed in relationship to slavery, but later in the course resistance is seen in a much broader context: in response to post-colonial and post-civil rights, and as an engagement of national, economic, cultural and social forces. Thus, resistance might be understood as a continuing legacy of black peoples’ existence in the Americas. Resistance might, first, be read in relationship to European domination in the Americas and, second, to national and other post-emancipation forms of domination which force us to think of resistance in increasingly more complex ways. The “anatomy of prejudices i.e. “sexism, homophobia, class oppression, racism”come under scrutiny as the course attempts to articulate the libratory project.
8:30am every Friday morning. I did not miss a single class.
My entire world was turned upside down and inside out and it all began when I encountered the individual who taught the class. Professor Andrea Davis was young, she was stylish and she was the first teacher I ever had of African descent.
I went to high school in the Weston Mount Dennis area (Eglinton West-Jane Street-Weston Road-Humber Blvd), a neighbourhood with a very high West African, Caribbean and Latino population but
despite the diverse demographics of the geographical region and the school population every single one the teachers I had at this Catholic institution were of European descent. They were not terrible teachers. I actually had really positive relationships with quite a few of them: my history teacher Mr. Speed who was obsessed with narratives of war and would tell stories of elaborate military missions using tables and chairs to create his sets; Mr. Tuohy who introduced me to the concept of activism in World Issues with his stories of adbusters and protestors ignited my desires to travel the world; and Ms. Perkins-Ball, the teacher who worked tirelessly to teach herself the content of the African Heritage course that was constantly under threat of cancellation at our school. She introduced me to a history that did not begin at slavery but included knowledge of African kingdoms that were complex and sophisticated and necessary to learn. But by no means was it all peachy: there were teachers with
archaic notions of discipline who attempted to lock students in closets (she called it a dressing room, everyone else called it a closet); teachers who refused to put the Black History Month celebrations into the school yearbook, teachers who told me “I really think you can do better” when I told them who my date was for prom – a brilliant young man who never felt engaged with the system and ended up dropping out; teachers who asked me if I thought I was going to become a lesbian because there were so few good black men out there for successful, intelligent Black women. When I graduated from this school which had a relatively large Black student population, there was only one other Black male accepting his diploma with me.
I had always wondered what it would be like to have a teacher that looked like me standing at the front of the class. I wondered if it would make any difference at all or if it would be the same story with a different face.
Cultures of Resistance in the Americas was not the same story.
This class completely shifted my entire world view. It was as though it took everything that I had subconsciously come to understand about my history, my construction of self, my lived experience in relationships and provided me with CONTEXT; a language of analysis, a reason for why. It presented me with a magnifying glass to have a closer, sharper, more insightful look into me and my mum and my friends and my grandparents and the ancestors whose names I may never know. It was the first class that I ever took that helped me understand MYSELF; myself as a historical being; myself as a feminist; myself as an agent of transformation and change. I hadn’t realized how powerless I felt until this class; it was as though history was being re-taught to me from a layered and complex perspective of resistance.
At the end of each class, I remember that a group of us would head to the student centre, grab something (probably unhealthy) to eat, and sit by the Yogen Fruz talking about everything that had been discussed in the class. The learning experience continued into these informal conversations where we began making parallels and connections to our own lives. These conversations would go on for
HOURS until we had to leave for our next class or go home and catch a few more hours of sleep before heading to work at Athletes World (lol).
So that was 9 years ago. After that I made sure to take a class every single year with a Black female professor who helped me to contextualize and understand my position in the world and also helped me to maintain my sanity within the academic institution and the larger world. So this resulted in:
- Self and Identity: Contemporary Feminist and Anti-Racist Perspectives with Dr. Stefanie Samuels
- Black Feminist Thought with Dr. Charmaine Crawford
- Post-Colonial Literature: Diaspora and Theory with Dr. Vermonja Alston
- Black Literature and Culture in Canada with Dr. Andrea Davis
- Black Women’s Writing with Dr. Andrea Davis
- Independent Directed Reading Course on Black Women’s Mental Health with Dr. Andrea Davis
By my third year I began re-visioning my life goals and started to imagine myself as a Professor, wearing cute outfits like Andrea and transforming the lives of my students one lecture at a time. I had never before imagined or desired a life as an educator. I don’t actually think the work that I have been doing for the past 5 years with Lost Lyrics and The Remix Project would have been possible without those experiences which helped me to imagine myself in spaces that prior to this time, I had not seen myself in or even more importantly had not seen the possibilities that could occur within them. When I began university, I understood change as working for the United Nation (cue laughter at my naivete here!) The experience that began with Cultures of Resistance helped me to recognize the importance of change as something personal; something intimate; something rooted in community. So much of the content of what I teach and want to teach comes out of those classes and I refer back to the lecture notes, old papers, course kits and literature that was assigned on a regular basis.
Today, once again, I visited the class Cultures of Resistance in the Americas, but this time with one of my students from Lost Lyrics. My intention for attending this class with my student was to illustrate to him the possibilities that can occur within a university setting, to show him the distinction between high school and university; I let him know that this class was indeed special and not every class in post-secondary was like this; but if you have a clear understanding of the kind of academic experience you are looking for, then you can seek out these spaces. The subject of today’s class was “Challenging the Myth of the Strong Black Woman” and it was an amazing feeling to see him take notes, watch his eyes follow Andrea, observe him nodding or see the wheels turning in his mind.
But then something unexpected happened.
This lecture which I remember, which I have referred back to countless times including when I recently watched Nicki Minaj’s music video for Stupid Hoe and when I sat through the film The Help, this lecture that is engraved in my lens for analyzing the world began saying something different to me than what it said 9 years ago. I began locating myself in the content of this lecture in a way that I did not and could not do when I was 17 years old.
As I listened to Andrea talk about the stereotype of the Mammy and the harmful effects of this ideal of strength and how this narrative of Black female strength is often talked about in a way that silences the context from which this strength emerges, and how this stereotype of strength locates sexuality as an unavoidable shame that must be denied in order for the strong Black woman to remain on a pedestal and how the Mammy stereotype can be found in the contemporary remixed form of the “corporate woman”, the “conscious empress”, the “church woman”…and…the “community worker”…something happened inside of me…a question began stirring: is she talking about me?
“When Black women act trapped and sacrifice lives and energies to companies and employers to the extent of self-denial, they are exhibiting signs of Mammy-ism” (Afi Samella Abdullah, “Mammy-ism”)
“Seldom have we stopped to think, however, that this thing called strength, this thing we applaud so much in Black women, could also be a disease…” (Trudier Harris, “This Disease Called Strength”)
Like I said, I learned this 9 years ago. I’ve referred back to it almost every year since then. So it is not new. But the body taking in this knowledge is in a different place and so it is receiving this knowledge in a new way. This body has gone through nervous breakdowns, has learned what vicarious trauma means, has figured out the hard way the dangers of working without strong boundaries, has been the only woman in an all male workplace, has called out the dangers of her own strength in her art, has asked her mother and grandmother the stories of their lives to understand the reasons and the whys behind their strength, has spent the past two months sleeping more than usual out of exhaustion, has been put on pedestals, has been dehumanized in her strength, has felt the inadequacies of not being superwoman, has denied her own sexuality in her quest to be the superwoman of so many other people’s mythical creations, has worked on adrenaline rather than healthy energy, has cried so many more tears….
Now, with this re-introduction to urgent knowledge, I am compelled to imagine myself anew once again…
This post is a thank you. It is a thank you to Andrea Davis and her class Cultures of Resistance for saving my life in 2003 and again today in 2012.