This Bridge Called My Back and the Backs We All Stand on
The new year brings with it new resolutions, fresh thoughts and affirmations, new ways of thinking of ourselves and the world around us, and a general feeling of possibility in the air. In all the newness that surrounds inaugurations and New Year’s parties and trips to the gym to stay true to that one resolution (at least for the first month), sometimes we forget where we have been. We forget whose backs we are standing on and how we came to be where we are now.
On the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s "I Have a Dream" speech and the 1963 March on Washington, it is a good time to reflect on that iconic oration, but it is also a good time to remember the lesser-known prompt delivered by gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, who stood on stage with King. As the story goes, she urged from behind the podium, “Tell them about the dream, Martin. Tell them about the dream,” prompting the from-the-heart part of King's speech. So, sure we all remember and were taught about many of the men at the forefront of the civil-rights battle. But what about the the ladies who also came before us?
There were women we seldom hear about, walking through university quadrangles and classrooms in an attempt to blaze their way beyond the ivory phalluses of the university (those white heteronormative spaces that they still are). Though women have achieved so-called parity under law, there are many spaces in which equality is yet to be seen, and academia is one of them.
The purpose of this blog series is to offer a feminist response to the culture of academia, including the experience of working, teaching, and researching within academic institutions, with a particular focus on women of color. Women’s rights, racial justice, and institutional sexism are tightly interwoven, and Lady in the Ivory Tower will examine those intersections with an eye toward making them clear to everyone. When you walk into a conference space, for instance, or an academic space, do you count the people who look even remotely like yourself? Do you think about the structure of the space and whether or not it includes those who identify as queer or women with children who might not be able to afford a conference-weekend's worth of childcare? Do you consider whether or not the space is accessible for those with disabilities? If you don't, you may be part of a privileged majority. No shame, no guilt, just an awareness of your positionality is all I would ask for.
Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott were both refused seats at the World Anti-Slavery Convention in London in 1840 because of their sex. In the 1920s, Barbara McClintock was prevented from majoring in genetics at Cornell University because she was female, so she majored in botany instead. No big deal: McClintock went on to be a founder of the field of cytogenetics and was awarded the 1983 Nobel prize in Physiology or Medicine. Anna Julia Cooper became one of the first three African-American women to complete a PhD in 1925. Since she couldn’t enroll in a doctorate program the United States, she graduated from the Sorbonne in Paris.
Fast-forward to 1981, when the anthology This Bridge Called My Back offered up an the work of a handful of women of color in academia, providing stepping stones to understand intersectional feminism. At the time it was written it was, as Nisha Agarwal put it in a Huffington Post remembrance, “a vermilion ink bloom on the crisp white wedding dress of the U.S. feminist movement.” In an effort to blur demarcations between intellectual and disciplinary spheres, and expose "the un/speakables," as coeditor Gloria Anzaldua would say, for this new year and this new inauguration let’s not feel uncomfortable being women in the academy. Let’s live in borderlands and in acknowledging the backs we are standing on, resolve to help those around us be the bridge to their own power.
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