Biography as Curriculum: Autobiographical Representations in Preservice Teacher Education

Article excerpt

Introduction

The three of us met in graduate school where, as students, we were nurtured into a family of sorts. Our academic advisor and fellow graduate students worked intentionally to create a community of critical friends that pushed our thinking and encouraged our development as future scholars. We each had similar research interests focusing on the experiences of African Americans within the American school system. As peers, we attended many of the same conferences, shared hotel rooms, visited each other's homes, and frequently conversed on the telephone. Initially, we befriended each other as a means of survival as we developed our identities as African American female academics. Ultimately, we became dear friends. As we completed our graduate studies and moved on into academic positions, we promised to keep in touch, not just because we enjoyed each other's company, but because we knew that in order to be successful in academia, we would have to cultivate the same kind of supportive, nurturing, and safe environment that had been fostered in graduate school.

Graduate school was not the first place where we had learned to create "fictive kin". (1) We represent the Rosa Parks generation in the sense that all three of us grew up in communities that demanded that we cross cultural boundaries. Our success as students demanded that we not only learn, but master the codes of power all the while maintaining a close relationship with the African American community, our home community. (2) We were all academically inclined students and actively involved in extra curricular activities. As a result of our efforts, entrance into the mainstream culture was allowed. But, something was missing. We came to understand that there is a certain level of vulnerability that we would have to contend with as African American women teaching about issues of diversity to predominantly White students. The burning question struck us all, "how would we deal with this vulnerability throughout our professional lives?"

In college and graduate school we addressed our vulnerability by reading about people of color like ourselves, people who had been successful at crossing cultures, but who wanted and needed to better understand what such experiences ultimately meant for them and future generations. We learned that much of our work requires us to overcome our vulnerability because so much of our work is rooted in our personal biographies. Certainly, we are not the first generation of African Americans who have felt compelled to better understand our personal history, the connection of our personal biographies to other people of color, and how these biographies fit into the history of the United States. From Harriet Jacobs' Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (3) to Anna Julia Cooper's A Voice from the South (4) to Zora Neale Hurston's Dust Trades on a Road, (5) the descendents of slaves have used autobiography and biography to tell their stories. We, too, use these genres to tell our stories and as a means of better understanding the lives of African American women. These personal stories represent much more to us. They are a way of naming ourselves while at the same time serving as a means for helping others, namely those from the dominant culture to better understand the role of race, gender, and class in shaping the lived experiences of Black women. In graduate school we worked to navigate higher education, a process that, were it not for the nature of an interdisciplinary program and the sensibilities of our academic advisor, we would have remained invisible, much like Jacobs, Cooper and Hurston. Thus, biography and autobiography about the lives of African American women became one of our sources of hope.

Much like other African Americans in the academy who teach in teacher education we are often the only one or one of few African Americans in the classroom as we face a body of preservice teachers who will teach an increasingly diverse student population. …