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.