To ‘Create Lasting Monuments’ with Others

Can you tell me a little bit about yourself?

I came to William & Mary from Houston, Texas in 1992, initially as a year-long replacement for a professor who was going on leave, but almost as soon as I arrived, the English Department had just received another line, so they offered me a full-time position, which I accepted. When I first arrived, I was strictly teaching literature classes, but I was a poet, and I didn’t know how to say to the department, “Hey, look, I’m a poet.” Eventually they found out, because if you’re a poet you can’t keep that a secret, especially if you go around reading poems. I eventually became a part of the creative writing cohort that was housed under English.

Then I became part of another cohort, which started the Black Studies program. There was the Black Studies program and the African Studies program, and after about ten years, the two programs merged to create Africana Studies, which is now in its tenth year. So throughout my career here, I have been part of three different departments: English, Creative Writing, and the Africana Studies, and I’ve been busy.

It has been my good fortune to work with colleagues across disciplines. I have worked with jazz pianist Harris Simon, who’s in the Music Department, and we’ve done poetry readings between here, New York City, and Oxford University. So that’s been a lot of fun. I’ve worked with theater. Before we had Black Studies, we had a professor in Theater, Speech, and Dance who wanted to teach courses on African American Theater and invited me to team-teach an Introduction to African American Theatre course. I also had an opportunity to work with professor (Bruce McConachie) in American Studies, who was working on recording the oral narratives of citizens of Williamsburg. He invited me to shape a script from the narratives, using the methods of the Grass Roots Theatre Project. It was 1994-1995. We premiered the production titled Walk Together Children in Phi Beta Kappa Hall, which I’m most proud of, and the whole town came out to see it.

And, of course always, my students. I have enjoyed teaching a variety of courses across disciplines, whether in Creative Writing, African American literature, or Africana Studies. I’ve enjoyed my students immensely. I’ve begun in the past four years to teach a course for Africana Studies titled “Black Expressive Culture.” My students have enjoyed taking it, partly because it  is not just literature, but expressive culture across mediums and genres. And, you know, the subject of that art, the forms that it takes, the ways in which it employs certain synthetic strategies–African American, African diaspora, Western tradition as well–So, that’s been a lot of fun. To create art with the students, get them sometimes to make art just so they get a sense of what it is to recreate certain alternative artistic practices.

What is your motivation for starting that course? Do you think something was missing or could be added on more?

Yes, we had African and African diasporic literature courses, but we didn’t have a course that theorized about the literature and culture across mediums and genres, specifically cultural productions as those productions reflected the social and political realities of black people. And we didn’t have a course that gave students a chance to creatively respond to the art they experienced.

So, the start of that course was really social, political, intellectual, and historical. Nearly twenty years ago we here at William & Mary created the Black Studies program, understanding that there were many Black Studies courses on campuses across the nation. When we started the Program here, we knew there were principles underlying Black culture of which Black art is a part. We thought about how we wanted articulate those principles at the curricular level. And as for my Black Expressive Culture course, I wanted it to consider the enduring elements you find in Black art, whether it’s Black craft (quilts, for instance); Black dance; Black storytelling; the Black sermon, the Black vernacular speech. In our early discussions of Black Studies, articulating these ideas in a systematic way became the impetus for our discussions and research, as we shaped individual courses, including the syllabus for “Black Expressive Culture.” I think the course is still evolving, but it includes some of the things I think a William & Mary student should know coming out of here. A William & Mary student should know for instance who Bill T. Jones is. He’s a famous choreographer, who has done genre-changing work in his field. He’s a black, gay man who initially had the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company. And Arnie Zane died of AIDS. Bill T. Jones decided to keep the group together under the name of the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance. Toni Morrison goes without saying, but what about Judith Jamison or Kerry James Marshall, black artists who have, in their own way, impacted how we think about art.

Going off that, how has culture influenced you and your life?

As a little girl, growing up in the segregated South, listening to my mother who was a pianist and also a school teacher. She, of course loved music, although  she didn’t get to perform on the stage or anything; she directed the choir. But what she did, as long as I remember since the time I was born, was play music, whether she played it on the piano or whether she played it on phonograph. And she would play a wide range of music. Little children’s, ditties, to Bach, Beethoven….And when she had time, she would talk to us about, you know, she would play something for example, like, Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five.” And she would talk about the time signature and the reason why it’s so unique. And the title of the song was “Take Five” because there were five…I think she said there were five beats to the measure. And usually there are four beats to a measure, or two beats to a measure, or three beats to a measure. And she turned on the Leonard Bernstein Hour, which was on Sunday afternoons, where he played classical music and talked about it; he broke it down for you.

So her love of music and of beauty…that’s something that I got from her. My father enjoyed jazz, too, but I associate that with my mother. I couldn’t play the piano, but when I asked her for a saxophone because (I wanted to sound like Stan Getz or Paul Desmond because they made the saxophone sound so beautiful and so cool), she bought it for me for Christmas. I hadn’t thought, when I looked at it, I hadn’t thought, “Well you’ll have to learn how to play this thing.” But, you know, I learned how to play. I would say that that’s where some of my love of music comes from.

What was growing up like? And how did that motivate you or shape to come to the place where you are?

Well, you know, I grew up in the South. And I grew up in a time the South was still segregated. But the time I was about, say, six years old, I was in Nashville. I was born in Texas. But we didn’t stay there long. My father was trying to earn enough money to go to medical school, so he took us to Detroit where he drove a bus. So for a couple years, you know, we were up there. His last year of medical school we moved to Nashville, where he completed his medical degree at Meharry Medical College.

Coming to Nashville at the beginning of the 60s was the exact same moment when people like John Lewis, James Bell, and Diane Nash were there in the Civil Rights Movement. Strategizing, beginning to march, beginning to carry on protest, beginning to meet at church, beginning to meet on Fisk University campus, the very campus where my mother and father had attended, the university her mother had attended and where I eventually attended. And so those were exciting times. Tumultuous times.

So growing up, I think we had gotten to Nashville–and we hadn’t been there a very long time–and my father came home one day and  told us that there had been a bombing. And they had bombed attorney Attorney Looby’s house–the attorney who worked with people like Diane Nash, James Bell, and John Oates–people involved in the protest. He would bail them out, he would go before the judge. And luckily no one was harmed. His house was in shambles.

So, these were the kind of times that I first became aware of race as this political and social realm of contention in America.

That shaped how I thought about myself, my family, my place in the world, our place in the community, and my place in the universe. When I was a little girl, thinking, listening to my mother play those spirituals, I actually sat there and said, “I wonder how these spirituals are of value.” I didn’t quite know at that age what I was trying to articulate, but I wanted to know how are these things of value? And I wonder if anyone else but me thinks they’re, you know, totally beautiful and haunting and just…you know, soul.

I wondered about that. So maybe in my position today, I can articulate their cultural and historical value and influence now, so I’m glad that I can do something that I always loved to do. Growing up in Nashville was a tumultuous time. [And I had a famous classmate in Nashville, at Wharton Elementary School –Oprah Winfrey.] I knew it was a special thing because she had always had this amazing energy kind of energy, and she had always been a person of strong conviction. At the time, as children, of course, she was (as she is not) strongly convicted that one must tell the truth and one must do good. We were children, and we didn’t have very complicated goals, but when you think about the belief in upholding truth and good in the world, well those are abiding values forever. That was one of the highlights, I would say, of my life: to have known someone like that.

And then we moved to Mississippi. Civil Rights Movement still going on. And by ‘68 we were back in Texas, but this time in Houston. And I attended high school there and then I went onto college, graduate school.

Could you talk a little bit about your own experience writing poetry? What do you write about? What is your creative process like? What is your purpose behind it?

For many writers, writing is a form of inquiry and discovery. It is a way to make something. I can’t sew or anything. I don’t paint. But it gives me a sense of satisfaction and purpose to sit down and try to figure out how to tell a story, whether I am telling a story of fiction or nonfiction or in poem. All require different strategies. Writing gives the writer a way to matter in the world. If you share what you write,  maybe somebody else can get something out of it. Gertrude Stein once said, “I write for myself and for strangers.”

I write about family, the weather, and I think I try to write just about anything that comes to mind. I am drawn to poems about family, about relationships. Since I have been here, in 2004 I was diagnosed with a brain tumor.

You know, that was kind of a wakeup call. And when I thought I wasn’t going to be around, I started thinking about what was important to me. And I think that’s when I realized that family, they’re the ones that are standing by you even when friends don’t always understand what you are going through, or maybe they’re a little hesitant to come forward. Although I should say this, friends and family for me, they’re very supportive. My colleagues at William & Mary have been very supportive.

So one of the subjects that I’ve been writing about is the tumor and the effect on my life and my sense of identity. In 2004 the term “neurodiversity” wasn’t, nor would I have linked it in any way to myself. So I am now part of a neurodiverse community. And I realize that just like being a part of any other minority community, it’s hard for other people to understand what you’re going through and what that means when you say “neurodiverse.”

How has your relationship with students been part of your experience?

I hope that I am being effective as a professor, as a teacher. Sometimes I am effective and other times students don’t see me as effective. I get emails from students saying, “I enjoyed your class” and I have to go by that. And other students I don’t hear from. [laughing] There’re always going to be those who didn’t enjoy the class and didn’t think that they did so well.

Do you wish there were thing your students or community members knew about you that they don’t already know?

I’m working on memoir essays. I’m trying to work through that because it’s hard to talk about domestic violence but also include the fact that you love your parents and that they’re good people. I can’t put it any other way.

So I’m trying to work through that as a writer, and I’ve published several chapters from the memoir that sort of try to break that experience down. But also try to also give a sense of how one gets through it as well and learns enough to not pass that tradition on.

You’ve been through a lot of periods of rapid change in your life. What are your reflections on those changes and also do you have any thoughts on today?

I would say maybe a few weeks ago, William & Mary put on the production, Into the Woods. I took my granddaughters–I have two granddaughters, one’s twelve and one’s fourteen.

And I had heard about the play when it was on Broadway, and I had heard a snippet of a song. Well, I love Stephen Sondheim, love his music. And before I went, I did know the plot of the play. I had seen on a movie that was shown on TV. And so I thought, okay, I understand what this was about, but I didn’t really get it until I was able to sit there and watch the performance on stage, these young performers interpret the script of the play and the score of the play. It all came together.

In literature, history, and culture, the woods have always been a place of danger, a place of wonder, and magic, and adventure. The play represents the woods as myth and symbol for the subconscious. How have we dealt with the woods in the history of civilization? We’ve told stories. I think I know something about what it means to be in the woods and whether you are lost or know how to navigate your way out.

I think that’s something of wisdom I know now. My wisdom is based on the fact that I don’t know everything, and in some cases I don’t know anything. And so, it’s wise to sometimes be cautious. And sometimes it’s wise to be like a child in the way in which you share your wonders. Maybe even your sorrow or your joy. I try to do a little bit of all of that as an artist who teaches. I think the ability to do that comes in handy in the classroom. Sometimes it doesn’t always work, but these are the tools that I bring into the classroom with me, realizing that this is what I mainly do, and this is what I have done for almost 40 years.

What advice would you give to students who may also feel like they’re “in the woods?”

I would say to the student who feels like he or she is in the woods, that…here’s another cliché, the sun will come out tomorrow. Problems won’t always feel insurmountable, and that this too, shall pass. Hold on to yourself. And one of the best ways to hold onto yourself is to look around you and see who else is in a similar position. And may the two of you, or the three of you, or the four of you, or the five of you can get through it together.

But first, you have to start with holding onto yourself and taking care of yourself. A well-known poet friend of mine said  there was a time when they didn’t feel like they were worth taking care of. And so they didn’t take care of themselves. But, when you’re young, and healthy, and strong, you don’t think about being 60 years old, or 80 years old, or a 100.

So, I would say, take care of yourself. Do those things you need to keep yourself strong and healthy. Get your rest, get your sleep. Eat well. Don’t do things that you know are harmful, including opening yourself up to emotional turmoil. So if you see something like that happening, don’t repeat the cycle. Break the cycle. And those people who feel like they can’t make in class, talk to somebody. Structure your life and your academic program in such a way that you can take it in bite-sized chunks and people can work with you. Because, I think here at William & Mary, we understand that. And the administration understands that, from what I’ve seen. You know, the willingness to work with students who have issues that might be obstacles to success.

In wrapping this up, do you have any reflections on the anniversaries and thoughts toward the future?

Oh, yes indeed. This year has been very monumental. In fact, today was the last official meeting of the 50th and the committee for the 50th–and I’ve been on that committee. The students, especially the African American students, have talked about how they’ve appreciated this last year. We had a number of events, cultural events across disciplines. We’ve had scientists, I’m thinking about Professor Shante Hinton. We’ve had activists come. We put on our own performances, and I’m referring to Professor Leah Glenn, with whom I collaborated on a performance, which inaugurated the year, the celebration of or the commemoration of the 50th and the three women around whom the celebration was organized. Who stood for the Black people before them who came to the university and could not get official academic credit, or who could not live on campus, who had to come to campus, take the classes, and leave..

So, being able to remember this moment in the school’s history and for this year to culminate in President Taylor Reveley’s reading–or proclamation, if you will–of the school’s official apology for its role in supporting and perpetuating  slavery, was momentous I think. I don’t just think it–it was, it is a momentous statement.

So, as a member of that committee, I hope that as long as I’m here, every single day that I’m here I can commemorate our being here and understand the significance of that through my teaching and through my efforts, along with others, to create other lasting monuments on campus. And perhaps the most important monument would be one to learning itself. And simply standing in the classroom and being prepared to teach during my tenure here. The same thing I would say for the upcoming–and it’s really already started–the 100th anniversary of women in attendance at William & Mary.

And I don’t know how many women professors we have on campus, how, many female staff we have on campus, whether it’s administrative staff or facilities people…I would hazard a guess that the majority of people of facilities, that there are a lot of Black people in facilities, and our students on a daily basis see more Black people maybe cleaning the dorms, or cooking, or having fill their tray in Sadler Center or in the other Campus Center, or whatever, than they see in the classroom. I would like to see much more diversity at William & Mary.

And the last question, what does being a women at the college mean to you, and what advice would you give to other students or people of the future?

When I first came to William & Mary–1992–for the first time in the college’s history, I think, five women faculty members were hired in that year. And that’s amazing to think that English department–I think the English department has led the university in the practice of inclusivity.

I would say to women students that I think that things have changed. I think the university is more responsive to aggressive acts against women on campus. Things can only change for the better, they will continue to get better as we as a community continue to look out for each other and believe each other instead of turning our backs, or downplaying bad behavior.

So, that’s what I would say to the young women who are here this year and forward, that you can do anything. Our women students are amazing. And that goes for many of the students I’ve had in my classes. Some of the students I’m teaching this semester, they’re going on to graduate school or they’re going into the city or the countryside, and their goals are big goals; their dreams are big. I’m confident that they will achieve their dreams and change the world and come back to tell us about it as alums.

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