Lately, my sister and I have been playing this one-upmanship game: which of us has the dumbest governor in America. Although I was born and raised in Florida, I am currently making my home in Georgia. My sister, though, is still in Florida. So almost everyday, we compare notes on the most recent dumb decision made by the governors of Florida and Georgia.
And yes, I have to use the word dumb because there is no other, more appropriate, word.
At first, DeSantis had the lead. This man welcomed visitors to Florida (a state filled with the 65 and older crowd) and told them to enjoy their spring break. Apparently, he thought Florida itself was covid-19 immune. Then the cases started, but DeSantis was resistant to implementing a stay-at-home order. To acknowledge that covid-19 is a deadly virus would be a Democratic move, I guess. (As if the coronavirus will check to see how a person votes before it infects).
Finally, it seemed as if DeSantis might have found a sense or two when he later shut down Florida. Then he passed laws to override local governments trying to keep their residents safe. And he gave a thumbs up to churches who wanted to fill their pews with congregations sprinkled with covid-19. Why is it always Florida?
And then Georgia catches the Florida bug and Governor Kemp decides that the best way to deal with rising cases of the coronavirus is to reopen Georgia businesses. Now, I was already struggling to remain second place after Kemp decided to get on television and say he had just discovered covid-19 cases could be asymptomatic (weeks after the rest of the world). I tried to pretend that moment didn't happen but then I watched Rachel Maddow and realized that his idiocy had gone national.
My sister reminded me of that moment each time I mentioned DeSantis's move to keep churches open. Then Jacksonville opens up their beaches and tweets that visitors respected social distancing practices even though the pictures clearly showed otherwise. I mean, that had to be the dumbest move ever, right? Until Kemp decides to reopen Georgia.
That move was endgame.
Nothing DeSantis does can top reopening businesses. Kemp wants people to practice social distancing while getting a massage, a mani-pedi, and a fresh hairdo. I think the person who invents a way for people to do those things without touching will be an instant billionaire. He also made the decision to reopen businesses without the input of local governments. Talk about not caring about the lives of your residents.
That these two men base their decisions for millions of their state residents on the ignorance of the president is a clear dereliction of duty. Kemp claims that he is the Governor of all Georgians but his actions show otherwise. He is the Governor of those Georgians who have deified Donald Trump. If he was the Governor of Georgia, he would put the welfare of his residents above politics. It goes without saying that DeSantis should do the same.
Right now, I think I'm winning the dumbest governor game, and I must say that this is one game I would be more than happy to lose. But that would require Kemp to possess an empathy that supersedes his political ambitions, and he proved during the gubernatorial election that his ambitions have broken his ethical and moral compass. And Georgia residents will once again pay the cost.
While part of me watches America rage with this seemingly unstoppable virus, there is this other part of me that can’t get November out of my mind. I have this friend who keeps telling me that Donald Trump may still be president after November 2020, and there is a fear that the refuses to leave me because that just might be true.
I guess I foolishly thought that the America that enslaved my ancestors and segregated my grandparents and parents was an America in recovery. Sure, I agreed with Frederick Douglass that America was a land of hypocrisy. I wanted to agree with Dr. King that America was a land of hope. I needed to believe in Barack Obama’s vision that America pulsated with promise if we just saw her unlimited potential. If we kept moving forward then we could change a past filled with hatred and meaningless democracy into a future where American was exceptional in truth. And then Donald Trump happened.
My horror that Trump is the president of the United States is this never-ending nightmare. How could a man who cared so little about poor people move poor people to cast their vote for him? How could a man with so little respect for women convince women to vote for him? He is like some type of AntiChrist, conning millions of people into seeing a greatness in him that does not and never has existed. And now, because of him, thousands of Americans have lost their lives to Covid-19.
The other day, I thought about how death and destruction follows him, and I had this Biblical moment. I thought of Moses in the land of Egypt when GOD sent him to free the Israelites. For every sign that Moses showed of GOD’s power, Pharaoh’s magicians threw down the same sign. Locust for locust. Boils for boils. Blood for blood. But every time GOD sent a sign, Pharaoh refused to listen. He told his magicians to match Moses’s power and they did. Finally, because Pharaoh was so doggone stubborn, GOD decided that he would allow Pharaoh’s stubbornness to take root and grow. HE would teach Pharaoh a lessen that Pharaoh would never forget.
Because Pharaoh fought so hard to defy GOD, GOD sent the Angel of Death to kill every firstborn son. Every time, I heard this story as a child, I would be troubled by GOD’s cruelty. Why would HE kill the firstborn son of all the Egyptians, even those who were merely citizens under this stubborn ruler? But it wasn’t GOD that killed the firstborn sons. It was the stubbornness of the Pharaoh. The inability of a king to look past his own selfishness and make a choice that was best for his people. The firstborn sons of the Egyptians died because that was what it took for them to end the enslavement of the Israelites. I mean think about it. It took the death of those they loved to finally set their slaves free.
And then that still wasn’t enough. Pharaoh was so stubborn, so consumed with the desire to defeat GOD, that he followed the Israelites to the sea. He watched Moses cross the sea and still refused to admit that he was merely a man in the presence of GOD. He watched a miracle happen but was so focused on winning his battle with GOD that he drove his men into the sea. The crazy thing is that he expected GOD to let him walk across the sea and recapture the Israelites. Like, how narcissistic can you be that you think a miracle performed by a GOD who just sent the Angel of Death to your home will be performed for you too? Just how narcissistic can you be?
In the America that is being devastated by Covid-19, I wonder who is Pharaoh? who is Moses? and who are the Egyptians? Is Donald Trump like Pharaoh, narcissistic and stubborn enough that it will take the deaths of thousands for him to recognize the limits of his power? Are we the Egyptians who have allowed his stubbornness and narcissism to kill our firstborns? All Egyptians paid the cost for their Pharaoh as we pay the cost for a mere man who sees himself as a king and imagines himself as a GOD. I wonder about this, about the way the Angel of Death is sweeping through our nation unimpeded because it takes the death of a loved one for too many stubborn people to see the truth.
Every great nation falls. Is that not what Dick Gregory said years ago? Every nation from Africa to Asia to Europe has fallen because empires don’t last. And nations fall when their people allow their leaders to think they are gods. Maybe my Biblical moment is just me remembering the stories of my church-going childhood and how those stories fascinated me. Or maybe, just maybe, I wonder if the plague sweeping our nation offers an opportunity to reflect on where we are as a country and decide if this is the America we want to be. I don’t know about you, but I definitely don’t want to find out if it will take the parting of a Red Sea for this train wreck to stop. If it does, then how will America survive? and what kind of America will she be?
Lately, I have been seriously contemplating a move to Africa. I haven’t selected the nation to consider my future home, but I have wondered if returning to my ancestral roots would be the “cherry on top.” I’d like to say that my desire to leave the US was borne solely from my need to reconnect to my pre-slavery African heritage, but Trump’s election in 2016 made me reevaluate my assumptions about America.
I have always been aware of the US's complicated past with people of color. America began by stealing land from indigenous populations (This includes land from Mexico). She denied citizenship to people from Asia to Africa but called herself the land of the free and the home of the brave. America was built on the principals of white superiority and hypocrisy so why should any of us be surprised at the deep-seated racism that continues to plague our nation.
Watching and reading the news means constantly hearing a new story of a black man dying at the hands of police officers who think their vow to protect and serve does not include black men. I'm tired of hearing stories of black men being police-murdered both in the streets and in the comfort of their own homes. I can also do without another story of the police being called because someone was living, eating, talking, standing or being while black. Over three hundred years in this country and we are still fighting for a seat at the table.
This is why I'm considering my own Back-to-Africa Movement.
In the 1800's, Alexander Crummell argued for pan-Africanism and encouraged American blacks to return to and invest in Africa. Unfortunately, his message found little favor. One hundred years later, however, when Marcus Garvey started the United Negro Improvement Association, the Back-to-Africa message resonated with blacks from Canada to the Caribbean and from Africa to the Americas. Obviously, the yearning to return to a place that many of us didn't choose to leave is a desire that plenty of blacks feel across the diaspora. Watching America move backward philosophically only highlights the need to rethink the idea of American exceptionalism.
Don't get me wrong. I love the diversity that is my country. But more than that, I've inherited an incredible legacy. I come from strong stock that withstood capture in Africa, the death ships of the Middle Passage, chattel enslavement in the US, and the debilitating experience of segregation. America has never allowed its black citizens to freely pursue the American dream, but we have still managed to help create an American identity. More than that, we forged a way where there was none so why would any of us want to leave America behind. Why would any of us want to leave the country built on our sweat and blood? Why, indeed?
I think when Alexander Crummell asked for American blacks to return to Africa, the thought was overwhelming. There was no Internet to combat the stereotypes that abounded about the African continent. But now the world is a much smaller place. There are ways for blacks in the diaspora to reconnect to the motherland that we didn't have decades ago. Honestly, I think we all should take at least one trip back to our native lands. And there is no time better than the present.
What America is becoming is a nation that is both familiar and new. This is the America that existed through Native American land wars, boarding schools and the Trail of Tears. This is the America that enslaved and segregated Africans, incarcerated Japanese-Americans, and denied Haitians political asylum. I know this America, but I also don't know this America. I don't recognized this country that elected Governor George Wallace fifty years after the 1960's rejected his message of race hatred. I just don't understand how the country that I love elected Donald Trump as its representative. And that is why it's time to reassess my loyalty to the land of my birth.
I am an American, African by ancestry, but I must acknowledge that my nation is deeply flawed and has always been flawed. And this leads me to understand that as much as I love my birth country, America is just one other choice in the many nations that I can call home.
Recently, I read about Tarana Burke when Time released their Person of the Year. The magazine praised women called the Silence Breakers, women who publicly shared their experiences with sexual assault. Those women have been, and still are, overwhelmingly white. Even the #metoo movement, specifically started by Tarana Burke ten years ago to include the stories of women of color, was co-opted into twitter movement that focuses on the experiences of white women.
The Women’s March, the Pussyhat, and the current #metoo movement continue to magnify the chasm that exists between the experiences of white women and black women in America. Nowhere is that more noticeable than in the 94 percent of black women who voted for Clinton and the 53 percent of white women who voted for Trump. Obviously, our views of the world and our experiences in it are a difference of 41 percent. When has it ever been otherwise?
As I watch more women step forward with their claims of rape and sexual assault, I certainly don’t want to see more black women claim their victimhood because that means they, we, are victims. I don’t want their voices to join the hundreds of white women speaking out not because I desire their silence, but because I hate the knowledge that sexual violence has been a foundational part of our experience in America since slavery. But I also know that there is a broader issue here. Namely, in this, the year of the woman—where is the black female voice?
The exclusion of black women from narratives of gender and race is not new, however. The Civil Rights Movement was a movement of, by and for black men. Even though women were the powerhouses—Daisy Bates in Little Rock. Joann Robinson in Montgomery, Septima Clark in South Carolina—the men garnered the national attention. The Women’s Movement was no different. Though we praise the work of women like Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, we cannot dismiss the racism that pulsed through the suffrage movement. While black women have always been at the center, their stories have always been marginalized.
The most recent criticism has been levied against the Los Angeles Times for their melanin-blind cover photo featuring all white actresses. The actresses supposedly call for Holloywood stories to be redefined, but one can guess that the redefinition includes gender inclusion but not racial diversity. And why should any of us be surprised? Black women have often held up the floor, provided protection from the ceiling, supported on the walls and all while waiting in the wings. Even when black women demand to be included, there is a long line because the door can only let one black woman walk through at a time.
I think of this as I write these stories of two beautiful, strong black women—one an Immortal eighteen-year old and the other a seventy-year-old boss. I wrote Neema because I needed Neema. I wrote Raina because I needed Raina. Black Woman Strong whether young or ageless. I have always loved stories of powerful, supernaturally strong women. I absolutely loved Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I was a die-hard fan of Xenia, Warrior Princess. I read urban fantasy with abundant white heroines kicking butt in worlds of witches and vampires and shapeshifters. I watched Blade and Spawn, and I absolutely cannot wait to see Black Panther. But I cannot deny the need to see a story where a black woman is not a victim, not a sidekick, not waiting in the freaking wings. Why couldn’t a black woman, though born in slavery, evolve into a bad-ass immortal being? I wrote Neema into existence because she represented everything I wasn’t seeing, but all that I knew a black woman could be.
The deeper I become immersed in Neema’s world, the more I realize that womanhood in Hollywood and in novels is still too often defined by whiteness. But the only way to see that change is to create a space for the women we want to see and the stories we want to be told. Toni Morrison once said, “If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” The stories of black women should exist across the genre spectrum. They shouldn’t just be told and shelved in Literature and Fiction. They should exist in romance, in paranormal fiction, in mystery, in thriller, in horror, in fantasy and in science fiction. Our stories should be told in every form imaginable because every genre should be enriched with the experiences of the many racial and ethnic groups that make up our world.
I’ve determined that even if my novels only reach a few, at least I have told a story from a perspective that matters, a perspective that is real, a perspective that is mine. No one will ever have to change Neema’s race to fit the audience of an ever-changing, ever-widening world. Neema’s experience as a black woman is integral to who she is because her story, like the stories of white women and black men, also deserves to be told.
One of the Pep Talks for NaNoWriMo came from Dean Koontz, and boy was it timely. The other day, I heard some negative feedback about Black Borne that spoke directly to my insecurities. I think that even if I was blessed with a bestseller someday, there will still be a kernel of doubt about my writing. So I had to reread Koontz's Pep Talk so that I could get myself back on spiritual and mental track.
Koontz draws a clear line between worthwhile criticism and naysayers. Worthwhile criticism, he says, is specific and helpful. It comes from people with a deep experience with fiction. His Pep Talk, the second one of NaNoWriMo, was powerful in its simplicity. How many times have I told my students the same thing in slightly different words?
I knew that the moment I took a chance on my writing, not everyone would love my words or my style. But I also know how sensitive I am and how thin my skin can be. Putting your creative self out there isn't easy. I feel like a little kid waiting for that moment of approval from the adult who holds my dreams in the palm of her/his hands. But I also know that everybody is going to have something to say. That's how life goes, right?
Once we expose our dreams to the world, every person who hears them will then have the "'right" to pass judgment. It's up to us, the dreamers, to determine how that judgment will impact us. We have to decide what words to keep and which to discard. We have to decide whether to press on or to give up. We have to decide whether we have received worthwhile criticism or just empty words from naysayers.
I must admit that the first truly negative piece of criticism that I received about Black Borne made me falter. I even wondered if I should continue writing Book Two. Then I had to remember that I'm not defined by my critics. I'm not writing for them; I'm writing for me. There are stories that have lived inside me from the time I was a small child. There has always been a voice that wanted and needed to be heard. I write for the dreamer in me, for the child who unequivocally believed she was a writer. No adult doubts allowed.
I write because I have to. And even if more negativity comes my way, I will continue writing. I have no other choice.
On the way to Orlando for Thanksgiving, my daughter and I stopped in St. Augustine for a little sight-seeing through history. I needed a fresh look at the city for my Warrior Slave series. Specifically, I wanted to see Ft. Mose.
I grew up in Orlando and one of the fundamentals that we learned about Florida was the history of St. Augustine. What Floridian child does not know of Ponce de Leon and the Fountain of Youth? I even remember taking a field trip to St. Augustine and visiting the colonial quarter. We stepped into a past that revealed the richness of Florida history. Wow! To be standing in the oldest (continuously inhabited) city in America!
Of course, our lessons did not include the Timucuan Indians who inhabited the land prior to the arrival of the Europeans, And we certainly did not learn of Ft. Mose. It wasn't until I visited the African Burial Grounds in New York City that I learned of America's first free black settlement in Florida. And that settlement happened because the Spaniards granted refuge to black slaves fleeing the British colonies of Georgia and the Carolinas. Of course, the British couldn't let Ft. Mose or Spanish Florida last for long so they systematically attacked the fort and the surrounding areas until the British eventually brokered a deal for Florida.
Learning of Ft. Mose just reminded me of how much of black history has been buried in America's past. Generations of America's children have been told the whitest stories about this country's founding. When the idea of Neema came to me years ago, I wanted to help bring stories of the black experience out of history's graveyards. One of our greatest tragedies as a nation is the loss of narratives that point to the rich diversity of America. Native Americans and Africans may not have chosen to be part of Europe's Age of Exploration but they were. And so here we are.
The Timucuans became extinct by the 1700's so I chose to make Dagon Timucuan. The fact that entire peoples no longer exist because of imperialism and colonialism is mind-boggling. I hope that in exploring Neema's 1700 beginnings, I will be able to pay tribute to a few of those native tribes.
More than anything, though, I want to pay homage to my ancestors. As I stood in the Ft. Mose museum, I was awed. Africans shed the bonds of slavery and built their own towns throughout the South. And those towns didn't just spring up after the Civil War. Africans were forging paths and creating legacies even before the War of independence. Makes me wonder what might have happened if Britain had not gained Florida and spread slavery throughout all its territories.
Ft. Mose eventually fell and became overshadowed by the incredible story of St. Augustine, but there is power in knowing that Africans were so much greater than slavery. From the beginning, African peoples fought for their freedom; they searched for their place in American society despite the difficulties they faced. These are the stories that I am able to explore and tell through Neema. What more could the writer in me ask for?
Lately, I have been reflecting on my long, exhausting teaching career.
I started teaching because I needed a job. I had left University of Florida after a particularly tough lesson in graduate school politics, and I needed an adult job so that I could pay my very real adult bills. So I took on a job that I felt I could do relatively well and for which I didn't need a lot of experience. I stumbled upon teaching by accident, truthfully. I received a phone call from a principal who conducted a phone interview for a job that I hadn't applied for. That interview got me thinking about teaching as a possible job choice, and a year later, I got my first teaching job at Meadowbrook Middle School. And that's what it was: a job. I had no intentions of staying in teaching because I did not want to teach teenagers.
That was twenty years ago.
I wish I could say that I continued teaching because I loved to teach, but I don't think I ever quite fell in love with my career choice. I developed a passion for teaching, yes. And there were students that I taught who made me a better person. But love teaching. I don't think that affair ever reached such a deep emotional level. My teaching career has involved incidents that required a strength and determination that I never knew I had. I've withstood principals who were ruthless in ways that were downright scary. This is why, I think, I've come to the end of the line. No one person can take so many blows and still be left standing.
When I first started teaching at Meadowbrook, I worked for a man who lacked interest in the job. He administered with a casual neglect that would have been unacceptable in a school with less black and brown children. A week before school began, he assigned another teacher and I to the old wood shop classrooms. The rooms were big enough to house two full classes, and the principal said a partition would divide the room in half. The partition never came.
So my introduction to teaching included a wood shop classroom that I shared with another teacher. There was no wall between our classes, and no chalkboard, no books, no bulletin board, no desks on my side of the room. And the floor was just paint on concrete. I might as well have been teaching in a garage. The television for morning announcements was on the other teacher's side of the room. So here I was, this young teacher who had to figure out how to turn my space into a classroom. I looked at one wall filled with cabinets and a counter, another wall that held six closet doors, and a third wall with another door and a huge closet, and I was at a loss. I had less than a week to prepare for my students and their classroom was definitely not a classroom.
Perhaps I should have quit then. If I had known what trouble lay ahead, then I might have. I quickly learned that while children can make teaching both tough and rewarding, the bureaucracy that governs teaching can be destructive. Don't get me wrong, though. By bureaucracy, I don't refer just to the policies that allow us to point to a vague, machine-like system. I am talking about those women and men that sit behind desks far removed from classrooms, but make day to day decisions about our public school aged children that more often than not--do harm first.
Recently I assigned my students a reading and writing assignment centered around the movement that has evolved from Colin Kaepernick's decision to kneel in protest during the National Anthem. I've repeatedly reminded them that Kaepernick is not protesting the flag nor the Anthem. He is protesting the oppression and mistreatment of blacks and people of color that has been long-standing in this country. He is simply protesting during the singing of the National Anthem. Many of them will probably continue to insist that his protest is about our nation's flag or anthem. They, like many of their fellow Americans, will miss the point.
As I read articles regarding this issue, I find myself paying attention to the NFL in a way that I never have before. My disinterest in professional sports is not to disparage what players do in the leagues. Sports have, simply, never been my interest. Colin Kaepernick's protest, however, has slowly penetrated my world. Not surprisingly, that interest increased when I heard of Trump's remarks toward players who kneel.
I've been thinking about this a lot lately, and I've come full circle to why the concept of professional sports troubles me. Trump's response to Kaepernick, or any other player speaking out, just smacks of the age-old ideas of ownership of the black body. Numerous white males own these NFL and NBA leagues which means, in essence, they own the players of those leagues. I truly feel that Trump's advocacy of firing these players who protest has everything to do with this idea of ownership. He was reminding his white male "friends" of the power they hold over these black men.
I think that this is exemplified in the way that Kaepernick was blackballed. Before Trump made his remarks, the NFL had found a way to punish Kaepernick. Their mode of punishment was a public reminder that the role of black players is to entertain their predominately white audiences, not to protest the mistreatment of fellow black citizens. By protesting during games, players asked viewers to acknowledge race in an arena where most people deny that race exists. Yet, racial disparities dominate the NFL. Only in football, basketball and prison is the black body such a clear object of ownership.
One of my students, like many other critics, felt that Kaepernick's paycheck precludes his right to speak out and obviously men like Trump believe the same thing. But isn't that why Kaepernick spoke out? He had the platform and the money to do so. That actually reminds me of W.E.B Dubois' theory of the Talented Tenth. Though Dubois' theory referred to the college educated reaching back to help lift up the masses, I think that Dubois would consider Kaepernick's stance as part of giving back to our communities. When we find our moments of success, be they through education or by other means, it is our duty to help all voices be heard. That, I think, is the crux of what Kaepernick was trying to achieve. He didn't want his fortune and fame to only benefit him. He used his fame to bring notice to an issue that has always kept America from fulfilling the promise inherent in her flag and her Anthem.
Blackballing Kaepernick only highlights the troubled relationship that America's white citizens have often had with her black ones. Slavery, segregation, and mass incarceration has always been about owning the black body and silencing the black voice. The NBA's recent ban on players kneeling during the National Anthem reflects that same need to control: ownership and silencing. The history of forcing black Americans to accept the institutional racism that has plagued America since its founding cannot and will not change unless more people of color use their platforms to expose the inequities in American society.
Movements often begin with one person and one voice. It may have taken the ignorance of a president to make other players take a knee like Kaepernick, but let's never lose sight of why he protested. Young black men being gunned down in the streets should never be an acceptable policing policy. Allowing their killers to go free because they hide behind a badge is not the definition of serving and protecting. These young black males are citizens too, and they deserve to be served and protected as well.
And if Kaepernick was willing to use his body and voice to highlight oppressive practices, then he should be praised not punished. He did what many white citizens don't want any black person, particularly black men to do, own their bodies and own their voices. I don't know about you, but I am definitely supporting Kaepernick's "kneeling to stand." Not only is slavery outdated, but slavery has been rejected. And when we own our bodies and our voices, we better make that self-ownership work--not only for ourselves but for the good of ALL American citizens.
I naively believed that American society had progressed far enough from the 1950's that George Wallace could never become president today. Obviously, I was wrong.
Whenever I think about those people who voted for Donald Trump, I keep wondering how they justified his racist beliefs and behaviors. I've read articles that state all of Trump's voters can't be painted with the same brush, but I disagree. An acceptance of racism and sexism must have existed on some level in order for his voters to see Trump as their savior. When white America voted for Trump, the greatest change that they wanted was for a whiter America. We certainly see that now with the rise in overt white supremacy and Trump's reaction to it.
I don't see how anyone can be surprised by Trump's racism. He has lived a life of white privilege and a perceived sense of white superiority. When the Central Park 5 were accused of a rape that they did not commit, he took out a full page ad calling for their deaths. They were only teenagers at the time. And even though they were later exonerated, Trump continued to hold onto his belief in their guilt. His business practices also reflected a deep-rooted racism, but it's his reaction to the Central Park 5 that disturbs me most.
I wish the media had vetted him more instead of used him to bolster their ratings. I wish that Hillary Clinton had treated him to her lawyer expertise instead of referring folks to her website whenever he told one of his whopping lives. I wish the dangers of a Trump presidency had been addressed with due diligence before the actuality of a Trump presidency.
Although we have had racist presidents in our past, none posed the danger of Trump. He stands at odds with the direction of the modern world. He is living in an American past that his voters also live in. A past that can never and will never return. But by the time they come to this realization, America will have lost its standing in world politics.
When I think of how Trump equated white supremacist with their protestors standing against hate, his racism seems even more apparent. It seems that America has elected a demagogue hell-bent on destroying our nation. We (America) are becoming a disgrace on the world stage, but I guess that's worth the cost. At least white people were able to install another white man in the presidency--unqualified and ignorant but white nonetheless. But, alas, all great nations perish. I guess it is our turn now.
Lately, I've been thinking about my days at the University of Florida. From the time I was in 8th grade, I knew that I wanted to go to UF. I had a cousin who had gone there on a football scholarship, and when he came back home with his college friends, I decided right then that I was going to the University of Florida. Perhaps, if I had known then what I know now, I would have chosen an entirely different college. For me, UF ended up being a continuation of the nightmare that I called high school.
My experiences there, as an undergrad, were ones that I don't like to dwell on. You would think that I might have graduated and moved on but no. I decided to attend UF as a graduate student. While I had a much, much better experience with my social life, I learned that the politics of graduate school was a maze that I did NOT navigate well. This is when, I believe, I lost my writing nerve.
My last year as a UF undergrad, I took the final creative writing ficton course with Padgett Powell, a white male professor who exuded white male superiority. He believed that no writer had truly arrived unless she or he was published in The New Yorker, a belief that he repeated ad nauseum. I was excited to be in the 4th level fiction writing course, however, having made my final decision between poetry and fiction. I'd like to say that I should have chosen poetry, but the senior course in that creative writing path was also taught by a writing snob. I had met him before classes began since we had to interview for a spot, so I already knew his class wasn't right for me. Professor Powell's class, though, was one that I entered with optimism and enthusiasm. Until he proceeded to destroy my faith in my writing self.
At first, I didn't understand that he hated my work. I would
complete my writing assignments and never receive positive feedback. He assigned a 50-word story, a 750- word story, and he simply ignored my writing. But he would praise the other students effusively. I remember one stident whose story received everything short of a cheer, but the boy had gone well over the 750 word limit. Never once, in an entire semester of work, did Powell ever give me positive feedback.
I didn't want to consider that there were other issues at play, but eventually, I had to acknowledge the undercurrents that had shaped my overall experience at UF. I was the only black in my Fiction Writing class, and I was female. Having been filled with a lifetime of these only black and only black female moments, I knew in my deep-down that I was dealing with a white male who questioned my very presence in his classroom. Unfortunately, I didn't have the tools to handle this.
But this was why he asked me who my previous writing instructor had been. When I told him Harry Crews, he wanted to know how Crews felt about my work. His question, "innocently" phrased, ensured that I understood that he questioned Crews' opinion because he, quite naturally, felt that my work was no good. As a teacher, I now understand how devastating it is to withhold praise from students, and he was determined to never give me praise.
Finally, he gave us an assignment where we had to choose a quote from a favorite author. At that time, I had just recently completed Beloved. Toni Morrison had won the Nobel Prize only a few months earlier, and I decided to share a quote from Morrison's Beloved. His only response was to criticize Morrison; he said the quote was long-winded. In that moment, I realized that no matter what I wrote in that class, I would never receive praise for my work. How could I ever expect him to praise me when he dismissed Toni Morrison, a black woman who won a prize that he had never and has never received? Of course, he couldn't praise my work because his problem was with me.
From that moment on, I gave up on that class. For the first time, I hated an English class. I didn't want to attend, but couldn't stop myself from showing up everyday. But I was devastated. He had poisoned the deep, abiding love that I had always felt for English from the moment I learned to read. I would like to say that I spoke truth to power, but I didn't. I attended class each day and promptly went to sleep. And he never said a word to me about my naps because he just didn't care.
Everything about his interactions with me--from his dismissive attitude to his steadfast refusal to give me positive feedback--made me question my abilities in a way that I never had before. And I still, even after twenty-three years, resent him for how he made me feel.
I did speak to him after the class ended and after I received my C. I told him that I felt his treatment of me was in response to my race and gender. His response was typical: he couldn't be racist because the one other black student that he had taught previously had received an A in the course. So what do you say to the racist who insists that he isn't racist because he treated one black person with decency? My hope, though, was that he would never treat another black student like he had treated me.
I don't know if Padgett Powell ever changed, but I do know that he was just one example of the white male sense of superiority that shaped the English Department at University of Florida during my tenure there. Once I entered graduate school, I soon learned that Powell was just one of several. There was a culture of racism and misogynistic behavior that was so deeply ingrained in the very fabric of UF politics that it was difficult to see or question. But it was what happened to me in graduate school that finished what Powell had started. I didn't stop writing because of those white men who tried to strip my voice, but I did stop believing in myself. And then I took much, much too long to reclaim my narrative.