For “Colored-Female” Intellects: A Love Letter

I see you sister. The slick of your edges, the calm curl of your lips just lying in wait to speak, the frequent flutter of your eyelashes as you go on searching for the right quote in the passage. And while your hand often waves out, honey brown amongst a sea of white, glazed over by the professor until the last bell rings; I see you, even when they don’t.

Not a single word I write is typed or written without purpose. I do not take writing to be an outdated—forced by the academic—practice. My writing is done with intent and, as I learn from other scholars, with growing precision.

Therefore, when an essay of mine was accompanied by a far-far….far from decent grade, I was, to borrow a word from America’s dictionary, flabbergasted. It is not to say that I, unlike any other scholar, am not capable of producing poor work or susceptible to making mistakes, but it was the craft and content of my writing and its clear contrast to my professor's unflattering comments that made me scrunch my brows. Regardless of my grade, I made an effort to correct this “mistake.” I first had the text reviewed by my friends, who were not convinced. That evening we reviewed prime examples provided by the Professor, I stopped reading at the title because that’s when I found out that “An Analysis of…” was the acceptable standard. If my perceptions were not enough, the similar conclusions the Writing Center reached were. Finally, I took my concerns to the teacher…

And this is when everything comes to an abrupt halt.

“Do you read a lot of academic prose?” she asks.

“Yes,” I reply.

“I can sense that you write like that in your writing […] but academic writing won’t serve you in your professional life […]. You need to write more accessible prose. This is just the beginning of your writing journey so you have more to learn.”

I sit there for a moment, a still silence coming over me.

She states, “we can agree to disagree.”

By the end of it, we understand that I’ll send her a draft of my next essay. I thank Professor Butler for her time before shaking her hand and wishing her a good evening. I’m more than ready to leave, for this to be over, but as I’m about to go she states, “I enjoy having you in my class, you’re smart. You know you’re smart right?”

I had only experienced such a similar stillness come over me in conversation once before. It was when I was admitted into Phillips Exeter Academy and had gone to thank a teacher of mine for her recommendation. Although her snide comment stating, "Oh congratulations, of course it helped that you were a black woman," was much more obvious in its polemic, I could sense the same racial critique undergirding all of this professor’s comments.

It was that stillness, that thing that brings us all to a nearly full halt. Whether it is heard as a whisper, slurred by passersby as we walk on the crosswalks, or hanging on the air of Southern breeze; it is still said, thought of, conceived, and ultimately to the acute listener, heard.

Academic writing, as it pertains to professional work, is nearly synonymous. If the work Professor Butler had in mind did not involve knowledge of academic writing, then what kind of work was it and why else would I be at Davidson if not to write like an academic? I can only consider the alternative; servile jobs, i.e. McDonald's or worse, yet, being a maid.

Access? Let’s talk about access. It is places like Davidson—insanely expensive; legacy, wealth, and racially exclusive; precious gems of the Antebellum South; or institutions founded on the capital of slave labor—that have made the term "access" even imaginable, because they exemplify that exclusivity which necessitates a counterpart.

Let’s talk about my journey, my writing journey to be exact. Let's talk about third-grade classes where a teacher noted I was slow to reading; it took my mother’s love and several thousand dollars in after-school tutoring. It took a group of all black women who with precision and care reviewed my work and encouraged my reading. It took my family and I moving, a lot, from district to district, school to school to attend classes that would actually teach me something. It took me hours and hours in libraries by day, writing and reading by candlelight at night. It took everything. I cannot count the countless dollars paid for me to learn prior to my junior year of high school, but I can tell you it was too much, too much to wash down the drain for anything, least of all for another’s pride. And finally, we come to academic prose. It would seem that every other form of writing is worthy of a second glance but a black woman’s. We all have been schooled and taught to reassess, analyze through the “complex canon” made up of William Shakespeare's and Eric Foner's. Because whether they synthesized whole histories or made up dramas whose ideas We agreed on or not, We were taught that this was the best and if we were to be worth anything as intellects we better look again. Yet when it came our turn, our writing was not worthy of a second glance. White women can say whatever they want, but we must have been mistaken somewhere, lost the argument, made ourselves too complex even if we stuck to the rubrics.

We. Us. This has and is happening to many black-African American, Hispanic or Latinx, Asian American, and Native female intellects, to anyone who is disregarded by the academy for not fitting into the mold their backgrounds could never allow. The colored girl's tale in academia is one that begins with brilliance and vibrant speech but then is dimmed til she is left apologizing before she even speaks.

And that I had to preface my love letter to you with this story of white fragility, is the only thing for which I am sorry. But I do this to put it down in recollections, to create a log, a history, something, even if it is just digits on a screen. So that this kind of suffering, so unique and common to Us, be recorded because We do not Live in their archives. Only unnamed bodies, servants, other "things"; our erasure is deeper than paper. Unnamed and Unknown are our complex existence, our thoughts, ideas, and actions.

But let’s rewrite this story.


This is for the girls of a darker complexion, with voices that only echo in academia’s walled-off classrooms; you are not alone in this place, I and every other "black" & "colored" academic stand here with you.

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