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
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.
Toward a Black Feminist–Womanist Storytelling Methodology
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).
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?