Image credit: Courtesy of Gina Athena Ulysse.
When you kill the ancestor, you kill yourself.
The Potomitan is the central pillar of a temple
This one consists of what is known as a battery of drums
That which, once activated, will summon the spirits
This one sits on a round plain concrete base
The maman supports the second which then holds the boula
Each drum depends on the other one-on-top-of-the-other
In 2011, a couple years after earning tenure in a joint position, I wrote an essay in the Huffington Post titled “Teaching Black Feminism and Paying it Forward.” It was a lament about the toll of too many institutional demands and undue burdens. Some are stories to pass on while others, like being invited to lunch with the university’s new president, are stories to pass on.
The post ended with cautious optimism about being in this business that is academia while relying on the gospel according to Audre Lorde: “If I didn’t define myself for myself, I would be crunched into other people’s fantasies for me and be eaten alive.” As I insisted then, in addition to the guidance of mentors, Lorde’s words resonated and helped me to recognize that future success of any kind depended on creating survival strategies and putting them into practice.
Survival is not guaranteed. In between the invitation to participate in this special issue and sitting down to write, bell hooks and Valerie Boyd joined the realm of ancestors. When Black women in the academy die, Black women in the academy take notice. We do so precisely because it is a warning: “senior Black female scholars are akin to an endangered species,” Black feminist scholar Ann duCille said several decades ago. She noted further that this process has been particularly harmful, both literally and figuratively, to Black feminists.
This remains true today, perhaps because of the low percentage of Black women who are full professors. Social media outrage about this phenomenon aside, in deeper conversations set in intimate circles, I find myself among folks taking inventory of how we are, where we are, and what exactly we are doing. What must we vigilantly continue to do to assure we will not become statistics—casualties of racial capitalism, or yet another successful one who has gone too soon? This dilemma echoes Toni Cade Bambara’s existential cry: “Are you sure, sweetheart, that you want to be well?”
With one foot in and one foot out of academic life, I always questioned how I was participating in my own destruction by doing this work, allowing the university—with its handmaidens poised to reinforce extraction—to kill me.
Initially, this was how I made sense of my situation as a first generation everything. I had learned early that because of who we are (Black women), what we study (God forbid! Black women) and care about (Hell no! It had better not be Black Study/ies of any kind), we are prone to be
exploited professionally socialized to often make sacrifices that others are not called to make, which will benefit the institution. This situation could become chronic if we didn’t know differently, and I did not know any better. Within this broader, unequal division of labor (epistemic and otherwise), I often wonder: under what conditions could we as minoritized academics in white public spaces thrive, self-actualize and get to live full, long, and healthy lives?
I pivoted when my amazing therapist intervened to suggest I turn my analytical lens onto the job, to go beyond survival to thrive is all about, boundaries, protection and inspiration.
With this new lexicon, one that emphasized the structural, I vividly recalled a 2015 Caribbean Studies Association panel relaunching a literary award in honor of the late Barbara Christian. We learned from one panelist that when Christian succumbed to lung cancer at the age of 56, she had been working with over 60 graduate students. There were gasps and shock in the room. Undoubtedly, inspiration was a part of this burden, but all the same, we balked at the crude absence of boundaries and protection.
At that moment, M. Jacqui Alexander’s grounding words loomed large in my mind. “I am not saying leave the academy,” she said. “I am saying that we need to complicate our stay there with different forms of knowing and being, which are not always already shaped by the imperatives of the institution.” Out of some pride mixed with plenty of vexation, I affirmed: I want to know who I am, at work, when I’m not under duress.
This is indeed the context within which I have always considered my presence as Black faculty in the classroom. To paraphrase Christian, what I teach, and how I teach, is done in order to save my life.
One Two Three
Destroy all the sacred objects
You need to know: I am not just Black. Born in the Caribbean. Lòt bò dlo on the other side of the water. Haitian. That makes me a particular kind of Black. Blackness of another kind because of the insidious ways “Haiti” and “Haitian” configures in the imaginary abated by an endless racist and racialized fascination with zombies, both in academe and mainstream culture. Haitians as subjects are portrayed historically as fractures, as fragments—bodies without minds, heads without bodies, or roving spirits. These disembodied beings or visceral fanatics, as I have called them, have always been in need of an intermediary Haitian as subject, not interlocutor. Naïve not avant-garde. Too native or not native enough. Not French or Kreyòl enough. Too political. Activist, not activist enough. Scholarly, not serious enough.
Somewhere among all these in-between dwells an artist, an ethnographer who challenges the tension between humanities and social science that undergirds anthropology’s schizophrenic standing as a discipline. Since no subject (particles, plants, animals, spirits or whatever) lives their life along disciplinary lines, in the classroom, I engage and experiment with transformative pedagogy, working toward a holistic perspective that may or may not lead to conversations about reimagining our institution. 30 years after my introduction to him, I keep coming back to Paolo Friere and the emancipatory possibilities of his concept of conscientization as a process that empowers through critical and deep reflection on structural relations. Still determined to put consciousness at the forefront, I am not even or no longer trying to teach to transgress per hooks’ call, but to cultivate enough curiosity that could nurture a more embodied presence.
Pursuing that ontological vocation, I am still on the quest to make sense of the human condition toward a more just world.
For we live in dangerous times and are at a dangerous crossroads. How can we move forward if we keep leaving the body behind in our teaching? I have been preoccupied with this dilemma for as long as I have been a professor. In my previous position at a small liberal arts institution, I often jumped at opportunities to bring visiting artists into the classroom. Their presence not only expanded the dialogue but also exposed students to more embodied knowledges, other ways of knowing.
Other ways of being.
Perhaps this way of thinking, of teaching, was preparation for these pandemic times, for in 2022, we can no longer claim to be disembodied. Glaring structural inequities forced more trauma into the open, now engraved in many of our collective experiences, further blurring the lines between public and private in the classroom. Responding to this moment, at a new institution, I had to figure out creative ways to remain human while teaching remotely with this new modality of engagement that reduced us to talking heads often to a screen full of boxes. Music and somatic exercises offered much needed breathing room. Yet, the in-betweenness that I embody makes me well-suited to understand the toll of this moment though it comes with the difficulty of enacting praxis of an ethic of care while resisting a history of mammification. Indeed, many of my peers constantly ruminate over how to set boundaries while disregarding or exposing systems (institutional and colonial ones) that are false and even destructive.
A work in continuous progress.
Years ago, I began to tell students about this Haitian proverb that is at the core of my teaching pedagogy. Se ale m’prale, se vini wap vini. A literal translation is: I am leaving and you are arriving. It is about generations, intergenerational encounters and responsibilities. Thinking about my teaching from that perspective allows me to appreciate the possibilities as I consider the Haitian concept of rasanblaj, a gathering of ideas, people, things, and spirits. According to Madame Jacqueline Epingle “when you do a rasanblaj, you gather everything. Nothing is left behind.” We cannot bring everything into the classroom. Yet, we cannot leave the body behind knowing it is our lives that is at stake. With each passing, this Black feminist confronts and responds to this dilemma reflectively every time. What stories do I pass on and how? And what does art have to do with it?
Boula drum with
Slitted hide tightly stretched
Over angled wooden peg
Braided frayed twine rope
Evidence of the ancestral imperative
Gina Athena Ulysse is an artist-scholar and Professor of Feminist Studies at UC Santa Cruz.