Lifting as We Climb: A Black Woman's Reflections on Teaching and Learning at One Southern HBCU

By Ricks, Shawn Arango | JCT (Online), September 1, 2012 | Go to article overview

Lifting as We Climb: A Black Woman's Reflections on Teaching and Learning at One Southern HBCU


Ricks, Shawn Arango, JCT (Online)


But teaching was about service, giving back to one's community. For Black folks teaching-educating-was fundamentally political because it was rooted in antiracist struggle, (hooks, 1994)

I WAS EDUCATED IN ISOLATION. Raised by a progressive single mother in a large Northern city, I attended charter, Montessori, private and public schools, and was one, if not the only, of the Black children. My college years were an extension of my experience in isolation. By the time I started my career in academia, I was already worn down by years of navigating multiple environments. Then my big break! I was offered a tenure-track position at a historically Black university in the South. I thought I had found my opportunity to really impact students. Equally as important, I thought since I would be teaching at a historically Black university (HBCU), and one in the South no less, I would finally find the support and encouragement I needed to navigate academia - this was the kind of sisterly support and encouragement I had been yearning for all these years. I quickly realized I was wrong. I was mistaking Southern hospitality for true compassion and caring. As a result of my experiences, I have learned that, in the South, sometimes it is best to act "as if' rather than "to be."

What follows is the story of my struggle to stay alive within academia as I searched for tools and strategies that would allow me not only to survive, but also possibly to thrive within the ivory tower. According to what I thought I knew to be true, there should not have been any problems for Black women employed at HBCUs. Having only read about the struggles of Black women at predominantly White institutions (PWIs), I naively assumed those problems did not translate to HBCUs. Imagine my surprise to find the struggle for Black women was the same, if not worse, than at PWIs.

My narrative illuminates struggles faced by Black women at HBCUs. Due to the preponderance of information about the struggles of Black women at PWIs (and the subsequent lack of information about the struggles of Black women at HBCUs) my account is a counternarrative that makes visible the negative experiences of Black women at HBCUs that are too often hidden. In describing my struggles for survival at an HBCU, I also review existing literature about Black women employed at predominantly White institutions. When coupled with narrative accounts of my own employment experiences, this review of literature helps emphasize the relative invisibility of Black women's experiences at HBCUs and, as a result, the significance of my counternarrative.

I recall my first experience on campus for my interview. I was pleasantly at ease with the students and faculty I met that day. For a big city girl, the campus had a little taste of home. For me that meant an environment of shared goals, a collectivist worldview and support. In my mind's eye, I envisioned a professional journey where everyone would be engaged in the success of their colleagues and the students. Collectivism, based on support, encouragement, and shared knowledge, is a survival strategy passed down by Black women since slavery. As a Black woman, I embraced the ethic of collectivism.

Despite my high hopes for my work experiences at the HBCU that employed me, I was disappointed with the lack of mentoring and sisterly support I found on campus. I was still on my own without knowing who to trust and what my next step should be. A different type of politics surrounded me. I entered the tenure game, and in the South that also meant politely getting along. Discussions about church and food overrode discussions about campus activism. As a transplant to the South, I found myself with differing views on religion/spirituality, vegetarianism, and homophobia than the majority of my colleagues. But in the South, those discussions are well-just rude.

"Lifting as They Climbed"

Black women have relied on support, encouragement and shared knowledge as tools for survival. …

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