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Research article
First published online October 9, 2017

For Loretta: A Black Woman Literacy Scholar’s Journey to Prioritizing Self-Preservation and Black Feminist–Womanist Storytelling


In this article, I used Black feminist–womanist storytelling to weave together stories from my childhood and early years on the tenure track to illuminate how Black female language and literacy practices and the strongblackwoman trope develop across a life span. Through these stories, I illustrate how I existed, resisted, and persisted during my first 3 years on the tenure track as a Black woman and emerging language and literacy scholar with a family. This research is significant as scholarship that centers Black women literacy researchers’ lived experiences is missing from the field. As such, this work contributes to presenting a fuller narrative of Black women literacy researchers’ experiences and working lives within and beyond the academy. This research also expands the field’s knowledge of what counts as literacy research by understanding the complex racial and gendered life span literacies of a literacy researcher of color. It is important for institutions and organizations to consider the knowledge, experiences, and stories I include in this article as recommendations to sustain Black women in academic spaces and shift the culture of academia to better support Black women’s work and journeys.

On Losing a Girlfriend

March 25, 2015, started out like a typical Wednesday. My morning and afternoon revolved around caring for my 1-year-old son, revising a manuscript, and preparing my lessons to teach on the following day. I was sick with a cold, but I could not let that break my rhythm. I had already “lost” two writing days because of this cold, and I was not about to lose another one. Shortly after 3:45 p.m., my husband and daughter walked through the door from work and school—I was happy because I knew I would get a break from being a mother and scholar at the same damn time. I snuck off into the family room and logged into Facebook to get my mind off of things. I opened up my inbox and became emotionally numb by the message that seemed to be staring back at me: “Hey April! I’m not sure if you know, but Loretta1 passed away today.”

She Was My Big Sis

Loretta was not my blood sister—she was my hair stylist. Like the relationship many Black women form with their hair stylist, the sisterhood Loretta and I developed centered around mutual support, love, healing, and encouragement. Although Loretta worked in the hair and fashion industry and I worked in academia, we had many commonalities, including our roles as mothers, wives, daughters, sisters, and Black women striving to create a seat at the table2 in our respective fields. More important than getting my hair done, my biweekly appointment with Loretta was a sacred space that allowed me to briefly escape from a world that oftentimes expected too much of me. Borrowing from the Black Girl Literacies Collective’s description of “kitchen tables,” Black beauty salons also symbolize
an inclusive space for Black girls and women to come together, to be seen, to be heard and to just be. [They signify] the rich history of our foremothers and grandmothers who . . . bared their souls and received healing and affirmation in the company of their sisters. (Haddix, McArthur, Muhammad, Price-Dennis, & Sealey-Ruiz, 2016, pp. 380-381)
Like other Black women’s literacy spaces (e.g., churches, book clubs, kitchen tables), beauty salons are not only spaces where Black women’s language and literacy practices are cultivated, legitimated, and valued but also spaces where they flourish and evolve.
When it was my turn to sit in her chair,3 Loretta and I would talk about everything and anything under the sun—Michelle Obama’s fly 2013 inauguration outfit, my reasons for not being a fan of Scandal and her reasons for being glued to the screen every Thursday night, the Black women fitness gurus we followed on Instagram, veganism,4 our men, being mothers of Black children in our current racial climate, work–life concerns, and self-care. Many times, Loretta helped me reconcile some of the silent and personal struggles I faced as a mother, wife, and emerging scholar who worked at a predominantly white Research 1 institution. Regardless of the topic, Loretta always ended with, “But don’t forget to take care of you, Mommy Deluxe!” Mommy Deluxe was Loretta’s nickname for me, and it signified the act of Black women juggling the excessive demands of career and family at the same time as “push[ing] back against master narratives of motherhood and mothering and work” (Nzinga-Johnson, 2013, p. 11). Loretta was big on self-care, especially after she became ill 2 years before her death. Like a wise big sister who does not want her little sister to make the same mistakes she made, Loretta would preach to me: “Don’t wait until you get sick like me to start taking care of yourself, Mommy Deluxe! Be proactive!”

Trying to Stay Strong

December 31, 2014, was the last conversation I had with Loretta in her chair. She told me her doctors were becoming extremely concerned with her illness. Loretta appeared unbothered. I had never seen her like this. She had an “it is what it is” attitude, as if she had made peace with her situation. At one point in our conversation, she told me she faulted herself for doing too much and letting the stress of work, family, and other personal issues interfere with her obligation to take care of herself first. As she continued, tears welled in my eyes, but I did not want to release them. I needed to be strong for her as she had always been for me. Our final text message exchange was on February 1, 2015. I checked in to see how she was doing, and she replied, “Trying to stay strong, April, but it’s hard when the devil keeps putting obstacles in my path.” As tears rolled down my face, I could not help but think, “Black women are always expected to be strong, even when we are dying.”
Loretta’s death during my first year on the tenure track was a wake-up call that compelled me to reflect deeply and confront the ways I was continuously sacrificing my spiritual, emotional, physical, and mental health to juggle the excessive demands associated with my academic career and family. Loretta’s radical fight to self-heal, self-preserve, and center herself forever changed the way I viewed academia and how I participated in it. In this article, I use Black feminist–womanist storytelling to share stories of my existence and resistance during my first 3 years on the tenure track as a Black woman and emerging language and literacy scholar with a family. Through these stories, I illustrate how the culture of academia expects Black women to embody the strongblackwoman5 characterization and forces us to “splinter ourselves, our lives, our work, and our politics to better fit within the academy” (Nzinga-Johnson, 2013, p. 10). I situate this conversation in the field of language and literacy to (a) illuminate the undocumented literacy narratives of Black women’s experiences and working lives within and beyond the academy; (b) complicate dominant notions of what counts as literacy research, what it means to be a literacy researcher, and who can be a literacy researcher; and (c) underscore the importance of cultivating racial and gender diversity within literacy research and among literacy researchers. I conclude with self-preservation tips for Black women literacy scholars who are navigating the tenure track with family. These tips can also be considered recommendations for institutions concerning how to sustain Black women in academic spaces.

Black Women, the Tenure Track, and Family

The Tenure Track

The tenure track can be challenging for all junior faculty, regardless of gender, race, class, ethnicity, or sexual orientation (Rockquemore & Laszloffy, 2008). Indeed, all tenure-track faculty are in a vulnerable position given their institutional rank, and many experience stress as they transition from graduate student to new faculty at the same time as balancing teaching, research, and service. However, what made my first few years on the tenure track even more intensified were the demands associated with me being a junior faculty member who was also a Black woman. Rockquemore and Laszloffy (2008) contend that
there is a fundamental difference between the experiences of Black and white faculty, and that difference is caused by the fact that we live in a social world organized by race. The racial hierarchy in the United States not only dictates that Black faculty are in a permanent one-down status across social contexts, but also infiltrates academic institutions, influencing how Black and white faculty experience the very same departments. (p. 2)
The racialized structure of academia oftentimes contributes to Black junior faculty (a) being the only Black faculty member (or faculty member of color) in their department; (b) receiving a disproportionately high number of requests to serve on committees; (c) experiencing disrespect and classroom hostility from students; (d) encountering microaggressions from faculty, staff, and students that reflect the stereotypes of their race; (e) being the representative for diversity or race issues; and (f) having their scholarship devalued and marginalized (Rockquemore & Laszloffy, 2008). These experiences are even more heightened for Black women faculty due to our racial and gendered backgrounds.

Black Women and the Tenure Track

Although research from 2013 showed that Black academic women were employed (24,283) at a rate higher than Black academic men (18,905), there were more tenured Black men faculty (8,339) than Black women faculty (7,138) during the same year (see Table 315.20, “U.S. Department of Education & National,” 2013). These data, coupled with data that highlight the disproportionate number of Black women professors who are denied tenure (Nzinga-Johnson, 2013), are “indicative of the complex and perpetual interplay of racism and sexism, which continue to sustain a racial and gender hierarchy” (Nzinga-Johnson, 2013, p. 5). Black women, like other women of color, face many unique obstacles navigating the tenure track. In the classroom, Black women faculty face an increased amount of challenges to their authority and subject matter because they are presumed incompetent by their students. On my first day of teaching during my first semester on the tenure track, I had a white, older, male student contest my definition of “spoken and written language” and proceed to teach my class the “real” definition. Although I earned a PhD, had been trained by top sociolinguists and language scholars in the country, and had years of experience as a language and literacy teacher and researcher, this white, older, male student, with no teaching or research experience, felt entitled to challenge my expertise. Although his effort did not go well, these kinds of encounters contribute to Black women exerting a great deal of energy planning for and countering the perceptions and low expectations their students have of them (Gibbs Grey & Farrier, 2017). Several studies have reported that Black women spend a lot of time policing their “tone of voice, facial expressions, body language, and dress in the classroom because these choices can have direct consequences on their perceived level of competence, which can negatively impact student evaluations” (L. S. Wallace, Moore, Wilson, & Hart, 2012, p. 423).
When it comes to service-related concerns, Black women faculty pay a higher race tax because they perform a disproportionate share of service and are expected to mentor Black students and other students of color because of their race and gender. L. S. Wallace et al. (2012) argue that this type of care labor can contribute to the “stereotypical perception” of Black women faculty “as nurturing, maternal figures rather than rigorous academics” (p. 423). These kinds of concerns present a roadblock to productivity and career advancement for all Black women faculty, especially those who are trying to achieve promotion and tenure. Often excluded from conversations about Black women and the tenure track is that of Black women who navigate the tenure track with family.

Black Women, the Tenure Track, and Family

In general, research shows that academic women who opt to be academic mothers pay a “baby penalty” over the course of their academic careers (Mason, Wolfinger, & Goulden, 2013). If we combine this finding with the joint forces of racism and patriarchy, we are able to elucidate how Black women, especially those who are junior faculty, pay an even higher penalty for choosing to be academic mothers. That is, on top of navigating the tenure track and the structural oppression informed by race, gender, and class found within academia, Black academic mothers are navigating challenges within and beyond the academy related to their maternal role. The demands associated with being a Black academic mother on the tenure track oftentimes contribute to a state of splitting and disembodiment “that lead many to exist and persist disjointedly as intellectual workers” (Nzinga-Johnson, 2013, p. 11).
The scholarship on Black academic mothering is important and necessary to reveal Black women’s mothering experiences, practices, literacies, and working lives. Still, I would be remiss if I did not mention the dominant discourse on Black academic mothering is limited in its discussion about the intersections between Black women’s working lives, motherhood, and marriagehood/partnership. Often, the role and responsibility of marriage/partnership get ignored or discussed as a function of motherhood instead of as a function of marriagehood. By focusing solely on my children and academic work, I would be ignoring the labor that goes into maintaining a marriage/partnership. Equally, by not discussing my partnership with my husband, I would be ignoring his role as a caregiver to my children and me. Among many things, I hope the stories in this article expand the conversation on Black women’s labor and Black women’s struggles and successes associated with navigating the tenure track alongside motherhood and marriagehood/partnership.

Toward a Black Feminist–Womanist Storytelling Methodology

Haddix (2015) reminds us that “our words and our stories matter and are deemed sources of legitimate knowledge” (p. 22). This wisdom is at the crux of what I am referring to as Black feminist–womanist storytelling. Black feminist–womanist storytelling is a methodology that weaves together autoethnography, the African American female language and literacy tradition, Black feminist/womanist theories, and storytelling to create an approach that provides Black women with a method for collecting our stories, writing our stories, analyzing our stories, and theorizing our stories at the same time as healing from them. In this article, using Black feminist–womanist storytelling enabled me to put my racial, gendered, and sometimes classed experiences in conversation with one another through storytelling.
As a research method, autoethnography allowed me to engage in ethnographic research of myself and my shared experiences and literacy practices with other Black women. Adams, Holman Jones, and Ellis (2014) contend that autoethnography is a qualitative research method that
uses a researcher’s personal experience to describe and critique cultural beliefs, practices, and experiences;
acknowledges and values a researcher’s relationships with others;
uses deep and careful self-reflection/reflexivity to name and interrogate intersections between self and society, the particular, the general, the personal, and the political;
shows “people in the process of figuring out what to do, how to live, and the meaning of their struggles”;
balances intellectual and methodological rigor, emotion, and creativity; and
strives for social justice and making life better. (pp. 1-2)
In examining my experiences as a Black woman language and literacy scholar on the tenure track with family, autoethnography provided me with space to be a researcher, participant, and observer in my own study. It enabled me to deeply reflect on the relationship between my personal and cultural experiences outside of academia and those within. In addition, autoethnography provided me with the tools to ask myself questions: In what ways did I sacrifice my spiritual, emotional, physical, and mental health to juggle the demands associated with my academic career and family? How did I exist and resist within the first few years on the tenure track? How did these experiences relate to or differ from those of other Black academic and nonacademic women? How did I learn to balance my commitments to my academic career and family with my commitment to self-preservation? To reflect on these questions, I relied on my personal memory and recollection of experiences, journal writings, old text messages, social media interactions, and conversations with family members, friends, and mentors. These helped me to gather important pieces necessary to tell my stories.
It goes without saying that Black feminist–womanist storytelling is informed by Black feminist/womanist epistemologies. The theories informed by these epistemologies understand that the intersections of race, gender, class, and sexuality inform one another and cannot be examined as disparate phenomena. Glenn (2012) contends that Black women have a different interpretation of our social reality, and we are continuously negotiating our sense of self against images projected onto us by others. Black feminism/womanism centers the experiences of Black women who are often excluded and creates a space for us to examine the intersections of our oppression (Butler, 2017; Glenn, 2012). Essentially, Black feminist–womanist storytelling mirrors Black feminist/womanist thought through storytelling. I argue that if our feminism should be intersectional, then so should our approach to storying. Equally, if Black feminism/womanism “privileges and positions Black women as knowledge producers” (Haddix, 2015, p. 22), then so should our stories.
Within the African American females’ literacy tradition, storytelling reflects Black women’s multiple consciousnesses and is one of the most powerful language and literacy practices that Black women possess. Richardson (2003) emphasizes that “the Black woman’s consciousness of her condition/ing, her position/ing in American society, the condition/ing of her audiences must be factored into her language and literacy practices” (p. 82). She argues that if literacy is understood as a set of events and patterns of activity that are linked to broader social and cultural phenomena, then Black women’s language and literacy practices are linked to our way of being in the world. As such, storytelling is a literacy strategy that functions as a vehicle for Black women to transmit our special knowledge and truth (Richardson, 2003).
Finally, using Black feminist–womanist storytelling can serve as a method of self-healing. In her work on Black women’s wellness, healing, and reeducation, Carey (2016) asserts that writing “can become an instrument for healing . . . or a means for Black women to enact their agency in resisting or repairing the conditions that wound them” (p. 27). Through the work of Black women writers such as Audre Lorde and Alice Walker, Carey illustrates how writing can provide Black women with imaginative maps to healing and a means to write oneself free. Writing about my experiences through storytelling provided me with space to reconcile past trauma; bring closure to situations; understand how my past, present, and future selves are always in conversation with one another (Johnson, 2017); and imagine new ways to negotiate, resist, and preserve myself.
As a literacy practice, Black feminist–womanist storytelling enabled me to assert my consciousness of my racial, gendered, and classed experiences and use them to counter multiple master narratives in one story. As a method of writing, Black feminist–womanist storytelling informed the stories I selected to share in this piece and the storytelling style and creative techniques I used to present them. Black feminist–womanist storytelling also informed how I analyzed and interpreted the stories I shared in this piece. More specifically, I used Black feminist/womanist theories to make sense of how my identity as a Black woman informed how I moved about within and beyond the academy and what it means to inhabit a Black female body.
Although Black feminist–womanist storytelling alone cannot save Black women’s lives, I believe the critical reflection embedded in this approach can move Black women closer to Loretta’s advice, “Take care of you first,” and Alice Walker’s wisdom: “Black women [must rely on their] miraculous and necessary ability to maintain desire to save fragments of themselves solely for their own joys in the midst of their full and constrained lives” (cited in Nzinga-Johnson, 2013, p. 10).

Putting My Stories in Conversation With One Another Through Storytelling

Strongblackwoman Characterization

Because Black women, by virtue of our race and gender, are socially conditioned to believe that we have to be strong, be self-sacrificing, and act with super strength, it is crucial that we continuously engage in Black feminist–womanist storytelling practices to critically reflect, resist, and heal. The strongblackwoman trope, which suggests that Black women have “inordinate strength, with an ability for tolerating an unusual amount of misery and heavy, distasteful work” (M. Wallace, 1990, p. 107), was a myth created by whites during slavery to rationalize the brutality against Black women (Morgan, 1999). According to Covington-Ward (2013), the strongblackwoman myth has
its origins in the mythic physical strength of enslaved Black women working in the fields. This concept has evolved into an image of a woman who is both physically and emotionally strong, capable of surviving the most horrendous of circumstances. (p. 236)
There are inherent dangers in internalizing, embodying, and fabricating an identity out of the strongblackwoman myth (Morgan, 1999). For one, it positions Black women as inhuman, “not having the same fears, weaknesses, and insecurities as other women,” and it makes us appear to be “stronger emotionally than most men” (M. Wallace, 1990, p. 107). Second, “weighty expectations and doing too much takes its toll on us” (Rboylorn, 2013, p. 1) and threatens our health and well-being. The strongblackwoman construction can lead to “debilitating issues for Black women who are overwhelmed with the many loads and responsibilities that they carry” (Covington-Ward, 2013, p. 247). As such, Black women are more likely to die from cancer, heart attacks, diabetes, high blood pressure, and kidney failure than white women (Rboylorn, 2013). Morgan (1999) argues that “Black women are not impervious to pain. We’re simply adept at surviving. The problem for [most Black women] is telling the difference” (p. 104).

Tough Girl Is What I Had to Be: Stories From My Childhood

Tough black girls = Strongblackwomen

The strongblackwoman characterization is complicated. In many ways, young Black girls are raised to be strong Black women given the ways they will unfortunately experience oppression on the basis of their race, gender, and socioeconomic status. In addition, many of us grow up around our strong Black mothers, sisters, and grandmothers, who model for us how to navigate and resist racism and patriarchy. There were several times where I watched my mother, paternal grandmother, and older sisters act heroically in the face of sexual harassment, gender oppression, and racism. To this day, I still find myself pulling strength and wisdom from that survival toolbox to confirm my experiences, help make sense of my reality, and navigate my humanity in racial and gendered contexts.

Word from my mother

“Black women got it the hardest! We are treated and seen as less than white men, white women, and Black men. And it’s even worst if you ain’t got an education!” As early as 7, I remember my mother teaching my sisters, brother, and me about what it meant to be a Black woman in America. Both of my parents were adamant about making sure their children understood how we were positioned racially in society long before we could experience what it meant for ourselves. But my momma wasn’t no fool—she knew her girls (my sisters and I) would experience not only racism but also many other forms of discrimination that are pervasive in American culture. Her personal experiences taught her that race, class, and gender were inextricably intertwined. Because of this, my mother was never afraid to share with us the ways she struggled as a Black woman in the face of discrimination, hostile and degrading work environments, dysfunctional relationships, and so much more. She also shared stories of how she resisted in these oppressive situations; however, her greatest act of resistance was demonstrated through the ways she raised her girls to be women. She knew what we were up against and wanted us to be tough in spite of it. I can recall my mother preaching to my sisters and me words of wisdom such as “Be able to stand on your own two feet!” “Get an education before you make a decision to settle down with someone and have babies.” “Can’t ain’t a word. You can do whatever you put your mind to.”
My childhood memories illustrate how multiple consciousness play a key role in the development of Black girls’ language and literacy practices (Richardson, 2003). Through my mother’s experiences, I developed an early awareness of how Black women were positioned in the world, and I was being socially conditioned to be strong and taught how to survive. This memory also shows the powerful role of storytelling and how Black women communicate our literacies through storytelling. In Alice Walker’s (1998)In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens, she states that
through the years of listening to my mother’s stories of her life, I have absorbed not only the stories themselves, but something of the manner in which she spoke, something of the urgency that involves the knowledge that her stories—like her life—must be recorded. (p. 240)
Like Walker, I carried my mother’s stories with me and followed her wisdom to a tee! I became a living example of my mother’s wisdom.

To protect and serve

“What is wrong with you? She is only 13!” my sister yelled. This was not the first time or the last time that I would have my young Black body sexualized by a grown man. Despite telling the man, who was 14 years my senior, that I was 13 and did not want to exchange phone numbers with him, he continued to harass me. My oldest sister, who was 19 at the time, did not hesitate to confront the man who she knew saw me as a fully developed woman. Although there were several men standing around as their friend sexually harassed me and argued with my sister for intervening, no one tried to protect us but my sister. As we walked away from the situation, I recall my sister saying, “He should know better, but don’t ever let anyone think they can talk to you like that! Ever!”
In the public’s collective consciousness, Black girls are believed to be hypersexual and much older than they actually are. This oftentimes leads to daily sexual harassment like the experience I encountered. Morris (2016) suggests that these types of biases strip Black girls of their childhood freedoms and make Black girlhood interchangeable with Black womanhood (Morris, 2016). Richardson (2003) contends, “another social construction influencing African American female literacies is early knowledge of the self as racially and sexually marked objects, to a degree greater than many European girls or boys” (p. 81). Watching my sister confront the man who sexualized me and observing how the other men did nothing illustrated to me how the world read Black girls and their bodies.
Richardson (2003) further argues that Black women and girls
employ their language and literacy practices to protect and advance themselves. Working from this rhetorical situation, the Black female develops creative strategies to overcome her situation, to “make a way out of no way.” (p. 77)
My sister, putting to use the language and literacy practices and survival strategies that we developed from our mother and grandmother, illustrated what it meant to be a tough Black girl. From this particular experience, I knew I had to be tough too and prepared to protect my little sisters and myself.

Burdening Black girls

Cooper (2015) argues that “we teach Black girls to be Jesus, and they grow up to become strongblackwomen, who hold families, and communities, and nations together, while they fall apart. And die early” (p. 1). Black girls who are raised to be tough usually expand protecting themselves to protecting their immediate and extended families, communities, institutions, and nation. Although this notion of toughness that I describe in my childhood stories is a useful and necessary survival skill, Morgan (1999) points out that “it can trick us into believing we can carry the weight of the world” (p. 104). Certainly, we do not need more Black girls growing up to believe that “caretaking (taking care) [is] something we do for other people and not ourselves” (Rboylorn, 2013, p. 1). This indicates that we have to be intentional about teaching Black girls about self-preservation. If we do not, the “invisibility of Black girl pain [will] cost us our self-confidence, our emotional wellness, our livelihoods and sometimes our lives” (Cooper, 2015, p. 1).
I include stories from my childhood to provide a holistic view of how the strongblackwoman trope develops across the life span and how Black female language and literacy practices travel through Black girlhood and Black womanhood. These stories also illustrate my early knowledge of Black women and girl’s social position. Moreover, it highlights how Black girls’ language and literacy practices are informed by the intersections of our social cultural conditioning, multiple consciousness, and lived experiences (Muhammad & Haddix, 2016). Finally, these stories demonstrate how storytelling is a literacy practice that Black mothers use to transmit knowledge to their daughters and how daughters absorb these stories and use them for their own survival. In the next section, I share stories from my first 3 years on the tenure track to illustrate how the culture of academia expects Black women to embody the strongblackwoman characterization.

The Strongblackwoman Myth Will Have You on the Tenure Track to Losing Your Soul: Stories From the Tenure Track

Covington-Ward (2013) maintains that the strongblackwoman apparition continues to haunt Black women in the academy, and Black women literacy scholars are not exempt from this haunting. Even when some of us recognize that this characterization is a problem, we “do not seek help from others or take care of [our] own needs when it is most necessary” (Covington-Ward, 2013, p. 247). One Black academic woman and contributor of the Crunk Feminist Collective writes,
I always tell myself that I am going to take better care of myself, but the priority of paying attention to my emotional and psychic needs usually gets put on the backburner—behind things that seem to require my immediate attention. I will take care of myself after I teach my class . . . after I mentor the student . . . after I attend the meeting . . . after I finish grading . . . after I write the last 5 pages of the paper that was due last week . . . after I read the thesis, write the report, and wash the dishes . . . After . . . after . . . after . . . My life is a continuous cycle of roles and responsibilities that make my personal well-being an afterthought, something that can perpetually wait. Until now. I am learning that undue and unnecessary stress has no place in my life. And looking at the lives and legacies of black feminist foremothers reminds me that I have some agency around strategies for saving myself. (Rboylorn, 2013, p. 1)
Ironically, I read and shared this blog post on social media on March 24, 2015, one day before Loretta’s passing. This post and Loretta’s passing within 24 hr was a spiritual message sent from my ancestors telling me I needed to examine my life and develop strategies for preserving myself.

On protecting and serving in academia

Rockquemore and Laszloffy (2008) contend that “faculty of color must learn how to simultaneously juggle the excessive and never ending service-demands that result from being one of few faculty members of color in their department, college, or university” (p. 3). I can testify to this. As soon as I started the tenure track, I had to hit the ground running as far as balancing my publishing, research, teaching, and service. However, I did not anticipate that I would have an overwhelming number of graduate students who would want me to serve on their thesis/dissertation committees in my first year. I not only received invitations to serve on committees from students in my program, but also I received invitations from students in other departments and programs. These invitations came from students of color who were not just interested in my work, but who also wanted a faculty person on their committee who they believed could help them navigate graduate school as a person of color.
I also received requests to serve on the committees of critical white students who were interested in working with communities of color and were looking to work with scholars of color who could help guide them through that experience. By the end of my first year on the tenure track, I was sitting on eight graduate student committees, and by the end of my second year, I was serving on 13 committees. As I reflect on my choices and decision making during that time, I realize I took for granted the amount of work that goes into serving on graduate student committees, and I struggled with saying “NO.” In many ways, I felt obligated to protect and serve. For students of color, I could identify with what it was like to be a graduate student who longed to work with faculty members whose research agenda reflected my interests and who could identify with me as a Black woman with a family. I also felt it was important for white graduate students who worked in communities of color to work with and be trained by faculty of color.
In addition to invitations to serve on graduate student committees, I received several invitations for institutional and national service. During my second year, I was invited to be part of three search committees outside of my department and two other high-stakes committees within my college. Moreover, I was nominated or invited to serve on six committees from three of the professional organizations that I belonged to. At first, I felt honored. I thought these invites had something to do with my leadership qualities or my scholarly potential. Eventually, I learned many of these committees needed to fulfill a diversity requirement, which shed light on why I was being pulled here, there, and everywhere.
Covington-Ward (2013) argues that the strongblackwoman characterization is one that Black women faculty willingly invite into our lives “with no regard to the detrimental effects of trying to embody the woman who can ‘do it all’” (p. 248). On the contrary, the mammy characterization is directly linked to the expectations of Black women faculty by our institutions, colleagues, students, and professional organizations. During enslavement, the mammy was
a woman completely dedicated to the white family, especially to the children of that family. She was the house servant who was given complete charge of domestic management. She was also a friend and advisor. (Covington-Ward, 2013, p. 241)
The mammy is typified as nurturing, caring, deferent, mothering, and “placing herself at the disposal of those around her” (Covington-Ward, 2013, p. 243). Within academia, Black women faculty, especially those who are mothers, are called upon to serve on numerous committees and nurture and care for students while neglecting their own needs in the same way the mammy was expected to care for the white family’s needs during enslavement with no regard to her own needs. By examining my service requests through the historical lens of the strongblackwoman and mammy characterizations, I was able to pinpoint how my identity as a Black woman and mother influenced the high number of committees I was invited to serve on. This knowledge also helped me understand how these stereotypes have been historically applied to Black women within and outside of academia and how Black women are socially conditioned to believe we have to be the dependable rock for everyone, even if it threatens our own health and well-being.

On Black motherhood, marriagehood, and academia

As if navigating the tenure track was not challenging enough, I was working overtime to manage my home life. From the time I started graduate school, I always told myself I would not be that mother or wife whose legacy with her family would be “she was an amazing scholar and teacher, but she was unavailable as a wife and mother.” But that is the exact road I found myself headed down after my first year. I was working in my home office during the evenings, late at night, and on the weekends. I was trying to do everything I could to make my ends meet. I recall moments when I felt both grateful and guilty when my husband would take the kids on outings so that I could work. Haddix and Sawyer (2013) contend that Black mothers wrestle with pressure from the Black community’s perspective of Black motherhood, which is perceived as self-sacrificing (Haddix & Sawyer, 2013), and are overly critical of themselves when they feel that they are failing in motherhood.
My husband, Dominic, and I had established early on in our marriage that I, as a Black woman, “could not be all things to all people, all the time.” Indeed, I am not considered what some would refer to as a single mother with a husband, which describes a mother who takes on the “primary responsibilities of childbearing and household management . . . and delegating tasks to their significant other” (McWilliams-Henderson & Tindall, 2013, p. 197). Dominic can fully function in his role as a parent without my input. However, the tenure track threw us a learning curve. Graduate school had demonstrated what life as an academician might feel like, but it did not prepare me for the added responsibilities of working with graduate students, teaching more classes, facing back-to-back publishing deadlines, and so on. All of these responsibilities required more of me, which made time management a huge concern.
After my first year on the tenure track, I also realized I did not set any concrete boundaries for my family when it came to my academic work. For example, I did not establish sacred writing time, so even on those evenings and weekends when I did work, it was not uninterrupted. My family always needed me for something. I also think because my work was not labor-intensive, and I did not always go off to a place called “work” like Dominic did, my family did not always see or understand the intellectual labor that was required of me. Contributing to this was the false reality I created of who I wanted to be as a scholar, mother, and wife. For one, I accepted a tenure-track position at a Research 1 institution without a clear plan or vision for how I would navigate that. For instance, though my daughter was school aged during my first year on the tenure track, my son was only 1 year old. Outside of my mother caring for him on the 2 or 3 days that I taught or worked on campus, I had no other child care plans in place. As far as my relationship with Dominic, we were not spending any time together outside of the home and away from our children.
Essentially, I was on the tenure track to losing my soul! I was barely writing, so I became concerned about tenure. I knew I could not continue to make promises to my family that I could not keep. But more importantly, I questioned how I could preserve myself under these conditions. These types of work–life concerns could lead to potential career disruption for Black women like me, and unfortunately, this perspective is not considered in conversations about what it means to be a literacy researcher and who can be a literacy researcher.

On saving my soul

During my second year on the tenure track, I was fortunate to be awarded a fellowship with the Literacy Research Association’s (LRA) Scholars of Color Transitioning Into Academic Research Institutions (STAR) mentoring program. The STAR program was created in 2008 by the Ethnicity, Race, and Multilingualism (ERM) Committee of the LRA for promising emerging scholars of color who will continue the strong tradition of leadership, research, and service within the profession and who will commit to dedicate themselves to addressing issues of racial, ethnic, and linguistic diversity within LRA and within the field of literacy. During my 2-year cohort, Marcelle Haddix was the program director and Tonya Perry was my mentor. Both Marcelle and Tonya are senior Black women in the field of literacy studies who navigated their careers with family.
Understanding the pressure of being a Black woman navigating the tenure track with a young family, Tonya would frequently call me to check on my well-being and send me encouraging text messages. During one text exchange, she must have sensed in her spirit that I was struggling. She called me up and said,
April, get a piece of paper and write this question down. I really want you to spend some time thinking about this: “Where do you see yourself in five years?” Think about this in relation to family, health, faith, and tenure.
Although Loretta’s death during the previous academic year signaled to me that I could not continue to operate under the same stress, I did not know where to begin. Tonya’s question was transformative for me. Following our talk, I had to ask myself some really serious questions: Was my family worth sacrificing to be part of academia? Was I ready to walk away from academia given the demands associated with the work? If I were to remain in academia, what would I need from my personal and work life to preserve myself?
With these questions and concerns in mind, I was able to create a more healthy and comfortable way to navigate my work and personal life. I admit I am still learning, and of course, there are still moments where I struggle; however, I am able to better negotiate my commitment to self, family, scholarly excellence, and my students. I describe the adjustments I made in the following sections.
After Year 2, I made a commitment that I would not accept invitations to join additional graduate student committees until I am down to a more manageable number. I simply tell students that I am overcommitted at the present moment. As Tonya would preach to me, “You cannot be a good committee member if you are overcommitted.” After I found myself serving on three search committees and two college committees during my second year, I explained to my department chair that my service demands were interfering with my ability to be successful. With her help, I was relieved from half of those commitments.
I had to hold myself accountable to the belief that I cannot be all things to all people all the time. I had candid conversations with my family about the intellectual labor associated with my work and what I need from them to be successful. One of the results of this conversation was Dominic and I enrolling our son in school to create more time for me and my work. This freed up many of my evenings and weekends. As a couple, Dominic and I also realized that we needed to spend time together away from the kids, and as a result, we established a standing monthly date night.
Writing productivity
I am usually skeptical about joining academic or faculty success programs because many of them are nondiverse, noninclusive, and antifamily despite their greatest efforts not to be. However, after hearing testimonies from academic women of color with and without children about their success in the National Center for Faculty Development and Diversity boot camp program, I decided to enroll. The program literally got my life! After my first semester in the program, my writing productivity increased exponentially. During my first few weeks in the program, I submitted two articles for publication, and I submitted my book proposal.
Before I could make the aforementioned changes, I first had to consider Audre Lorde’s (1988) point: “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is preservation, and that is an act of political warfare” (p. 131). As a Black woman literacy researcher navigating the tenure track with family, it is imperative that I listen to my spiritual, emotional, and physical health. Self-preservation for me means (a) embracing Loretta’s advice and not waiting until I get sick to take care of myself; (b) engaging in self-healing practices like meditation, journaling, and exercising; (c) forming relationships with other Black women and women of color within and beyond the academy; (d) not tripping over deadlines and the pressure from academia; (e) reading Black women’s survival stories; and (f) resisting the strongblackwoman characterization as an expectation and a compliment within and beyond academia.

Conclusion and Self-Preservation Tips/Questions for Black Women Literacy Scholars Navigating the Tenure Track With Family

In this article, I used Black feminist–womanist storytelling to weave together stories from my childhood and early years on the tenure track to illuminate how Black female language and literacy practices and the strongblackwoman trope develop across a life span. Through these stories, I illustrate how I existed, resisted, and persisted during my first 3 years on the tenure track as a Black woman and emerging language and literacy scholar with a family. This research is significant as scholarship that centers Black women literacy researchers’ lived experiences is missing from the field. As such, this work contributes to presenting a fuller narrative of Black women literacy researchers’ experiences and working lives within and beyond the academy. This research also expands the field’s knowledge of what counts as literacy research by understanding the complex racial and gendered life span literacies of a literacy researcher of color. It is important for institutions and organizations to consider the knowledge, experiences, and stories I offer in this article as recommendations to sustain Black women in academic spaces and shift the culture of academia to better support Black women’s work and journeys.

Self-Preservation Questions for My Literacy Sistas

In honor of Loretta, my mother, my sisters, my paternal grandmother, and all of the Black women whose shoulders I stand on, I conclude this article with self-preservation questions for Black women literacy scholars who are navigating the tenure track with family to consider. These questions (in no particular order) are intended to get Black women literacy scholars to reflect, critically assess, and examine their choices.
What practices do you engage in to prioritize your mental, physical, and spiritual health? Do you regularly engage in self-care practices?
In what ways do you navigate, negotiate, or resist the culture of academia that expects you to embody the mammy and strongblackwoman characterization and forces you to splinter yourself, your life, your work, and your politics to better fit within the academy?
Have you had a conversation with your family regarding the intellectual labor associated with your work? Have you discussed the pressure that comes along with being a Black woman literacy researcher with your family?
Have you established sacred writing time? Do you have a writing schedule? Do you plan your writing time in advance? Do you write daily? Do you write during the evenings and on the weekends?
Do you say “yes” to every request or (student, institutional, professional organization, etc.) committee invitation that you receive? Before accepting, do you consider what you can offer to the committee or how you might benefit by serving on the committee?
Do you have a standing date with your partner/significant other/spouse? Do you have standing dates with your children? Do you make promises to your family that you cannot keep?
Are you part of any networks or mentoring programs for scholars of color? Do you have multiple mentors with whom you can discuss your experiences?
Do you have conversations with your department chair when you become overburdened by service or service requests? Does your institution offer resources for Black academic women navigating the tenure track?

Declaration of Conflicting Interests

The author(s) declared no potential conflicts of interest with respect to the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article.


The author(s) received no financial support for the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article.


The table is a symbol of power, and those with seats at the table hold a powerful position. I am using it here as a critique of racial and gender hierarchies that are in place to prevent Black women from being in positions of power and (b) a reflection of Black women’s history of struggle, survival, and resistance in spite of these oppressive structures.
The chair was not only where I sat to get my hair cleansed and prepared for the next 2 weeks, it was also a representation of my soul being cleansed and prepared for the next 2 weeks.
Loretta was vegan, and I was/am an aspiring vegan.
Following behind Morgan (1999), I write strongblackwoman, a myth created by whites that alleged that Black women had “super strength” to justify their brutality, as one word to differentiate from Black women who have strength.


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April Baker-Bell is an assistant professor at Michigan State University who thinks, teaches, and writes about racial and linguistic justice. The primary goal of her professional work is to provide a pathway to cultural, linguistic and racial justice for Black students in educational settings, and, by extension, the Black community and other communities of color. In her research, she strives to present the fields in which she works guidance for rethinking the linguistic and racial deficit theories that underpin and shape disciplinary discourses, pedagogical practices, and approaches to qualitative inquiry.

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Article first published online: October 9, 2017
Issue published: December 2017


  1. autoethnography
  2. critical perspectives
  3. culture
  4. feminist studies/research
  5. gender

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Published online: October 9, 2017
Issue published: December 2017



April Baker-Bell
Michigan State University, East Lansing, MI, USA


April Baker-Bell, Assistant Professor, Department of Writing, Rhetoric, & American Cultures, African American and African Studies Program, English Education Faculty, Michigan State University, 434 Farm Lane, Room 293, East Lansing, MI 48824, USA. Email: [email protected]

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