Being Stagnant Is Playing it Safe
August 24, 2016
Samantha Smylie ’17
Beyonce, also known as Queen B, stopped the world when she dropped her sixth studio album called Lemonade as a motion picture on HBO on April 23, 2016. Even though I was studying abroad in London, England, advertisements for the visual album were all over social media and in British entertainment news. Since the advertisements for the album were so mysterious and Beyonce only gave us one single from the album ('Formation'), no one had a clue what the theme of the album would be. As a result of this, my friends and I were obsessed with uncovering this mystery. We had to watch Lemonade. The day that the album was released, we all sat in a lounge at our school and had a mini listening party. Like other Beyonce albums before it, social media, tabloids, and entertainment news were trying to decode Beyonce's message. This conversation lasted for months.
To be honest, some of the conversation was frivolous: mainstream media was concerned with accusations that Beyonce's husband, Jay-Z, might have had an affair with various women in the music industry. Other conversations circled around how Black women's experiences were centered in mainstream popular culture, which is very rare. This was the conversation thread that I followed. My intersectional identities, my Blackness and womanness, were being validated by a major mainstream artist with a lot of cultural influence. I was loving every second of it. Feminism in popular culture tends to focus only on the experience of white, middle-class women. That feminism is not an inclusive form of feminism for me and many women of color.
The more I read think-pieces that focused on Black women's sexuality, Black feminism, Black women healing from intimate partner violence or affairs, I found myself perplexed. I could not completely engage in these conversations (which were about me) because I lacked an understanding of terminology and the history of Black women in America. When I think of my history classes as a child, we would always talk about Black men and sometimes my teachers would mention a few Black women. I knew Harriet Tubman, Rosa Parks, and Sojourner Truth, but I did not know about Fannie Lou Hamer, Mary Church Terrell (an amazing Oberlin alum), Ida B. Wells, Assata Shakur, Angela Y. Davis, bell hooks (a former professor at Oberlin) and many more amazing Black women. I learned about these women in my African American Women's history class with Professor Brooks in the Africana Studies Department. (I urge you to take a class with Professor Brooks before you leave Oberlin; you will regret it if you don't.)
I tend to run away from what I do not know. I think we all do, but it is not a good state to remain in. We must all learn and grow. Oberlin is a learning environment, that is what everyone is here for: to expand their knowledge on topics that matter to them. However, at times the learning environment at Oberlin can be a very challenging space. There are so many power dynamics at play in the classroom that determine who talks and who does not. Usually, I am one of the few Black women in my classes. I am a working-class, first-generation student who struggles with balancing the way I speak at home (using Black English terms and phrases) and using "proper English' with (a lot of) academic jargon. All of this makes me scared to raise my hand and ask questions in class. When I do get the courage to ask the question about terminology or concepts, I get weird looks of "Why don't you know this already?" At an early point in my career, I stopped raising my hand. Sometimes, I would go talk to my professors during office hours. Other times I found myself suffering in silence since I'm uncomfortable with not knowing an answer to a question in class. I hope that the answers are in my written notes or in a reading and I missed it. In my times of frustration, I would think to myself, "This would be easy if I was just smarter," "I wish I had the opportunity to go to better schools," or "Maybe I don't belong at Oberlin."
However, studying away in London has taught me this: not everyone knows everything and that is okay. I did not know anything about Britain's history. What made me feel better about that was that some of my classmates did not know British history well either. We were so confused when our professors defined the differences between Britain, England, and the United Kingdom (I think I might still be confused on when to use Britain or England). I barely knew how to navigate my way to classes the first couple of weeks! Being in London for three months made me feel more comfortable with the unknown. It made me push myself to ask questions, explore new topics, get out of my comfort zone, and to STOP BLAMING MYSELF FOR NOT KNOWING. I stopped internalizing feelings of being inadequate, though it is a daily battle as I keep telling myself that it is okay, I am learning new material and I need to forgive myself. Being stagnant is playing it safe.
Instead of avoiding conversations about Beyonce's Lemonade album, I decided to do my research. While I was in London, I decided to start a summer reading list of books to read while I was back home in Chicago. I wanted to read books written by Black women about the history of Black American women in popular culture, music, and activism. I also wanted to make sure that I had a little break from academic jargon, so I wanted to include fiction books written by Black women. My research led me to a Lemonade syllabus online that had a lot of books in different categories like Black feminist studies, English & critical theory, religion & womanist theology, and more. I took a few suggestions from that syllabus and paired it with books from my African American Women's history class that I wanted to explore again.
The following selected books conceptualize the experiences of Black women as written by Black women, that critique institutions in America's society that constantly dehumanize, exploit, and/or murder Black folks.
Books That I Read For the Summer
Black Feminist Thought by Patricia Hill Collins - (Professor Brooks introduced me to this book )
Patricia Hill Collins is a Professor of Sociology at the University of Maryland, College Park. Black Feminist Thought is not a critique of white feminist theorists and how they have excluded black women from feminism. This is a book that centers the experience of Black women in the United States and creates a foundation for a framework that explains our experiences. The language in the book is pretty accessible; however, I would urge you to take your time through this book, for it is a bit long-winded.
The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander
Michelle Alexander is an associate professor of law at Ohio State University. The New Jim Crow focuses on the racial bias of the criminal justice system and how it incarcerates African-American men at alarming rates. Alexander takes you on a journey through time, starting in the late 1960s/early 1970s, to explain to the reader how this system works to ensure the criminalization of Black men. If I was a freshman reading this book, I would be overwhelmed by the language. It is verbose, so pace yourself while reading.
Assata: An Autobiography by Assata Shakur
Assata Shakur was an active member in the Black Panther Party and the Black Liberation Army during the 1970s. In 1973, Shakur was accused of killing a police officer during a shootout on the New Jersey Turnpike. She was sent to jail, but later escaped and fled to Cuba where she is currently located. I have not gotten to the book yet, however, it is a must read according to the reviews.
Sister Outsider: Speeches and Essay by Audre Lorde
Audre Lorde was a poet who wrote about the intersections of being Black, woman, and queer in the United States. Sister Outsider is a collection of speeches and essays between 1970 and 1980s that talk about racism, sexism, homophobia, and classism through various topics like police brutality, black feminism, and more. I am still working through this book at the moment. It is really empowering and the language has been easy for me to understand.
Freedom is a Constant Struggle: Ferguson, Palestine, and the Foundations of a Movement By Angela Y. Davis
Angela Y. Davis was a member of the Communist Party of the United States and had close ties to the Black Panther Party in the 1970s. Davis is now a retired professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz, where she worked in the history department. In this collection of speeches, Angela Davis connects the oppression that Black people face in the United States to those living in Palestine, which makes a strong case for solidarity between both groups. Davis makes it clear to readers that there can be a global movement to fight against oppression. I found this book to be a very easy read; the language is pretty accessible and the book is pretty short and it is just enough to get the reader thinking.
College is a great time to explore your different identities through an academic lens. I do not believe that I would have been able to explore the intersection between race and gender without the guidance of a professor to show me where to begin. Nevertheless, a classroom is not the only place you can learn. Creating a summer reading list was a way for me to work through ideas that I had and to learn new material in my own time. My advice to you: write down questions that you have, begin to explore them through a class at Oberlin, talk with a professor that can help you further your research, and use your summers to learn something new.
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