Posted on 04/16/2021
When I think of the past four years, the word that comes to mind is: unforgettable. Receiving the news in Spring 2017 that I had been chosen as the Linda Carlisle Excellence Professor (2018-2021), left me with a strange sense of relief. I would be the only Black woman on campus to hold a professorship (thankfully not the last), but I felt no stress or pressure. What I knew is that I would make the best of my time to increase my engagement with WGSS students and to complete a few projects. I had no way of knowing that a pandemic would wedge its way into the timeline or that anti-Black violence and anti-women sentiments would increase in a variety of ways.
It was the time for me to turn to ancestral Black women so I could become immersed in the light of their words and the beauty of their songs. I needed, more than ever, to understand how they used their voices and talents to make it through perilous times. And, they did not disappoint. See Me Naked: Defining Black Women’s Pleasure During the Interwar Era was completed during the pandemic and the reemergence of Black Lives Matter protests. I sang with Lena Horne and Memphis Minnie. I cheered for Yolande Du Bois (the optimistic teacher), and I laughed out loud with NC’s Moms Mabley. They were women who, although watched closely by voyeurs, lived their lives despite the costs. I end the book by sharing the relationship I developed with the natural beauty of Greensboro, which I had not noticed before and would not have noticed otherwise. A lesson: There is power; there is joy; there is freedom in defining pleasure.
Alice Dunbar-Nelson knew this (1895-1935). Somehow she found a place for herself beyond the name of the famous first husband she married. Her story of activism, chronic sickness, and financial instability carried me through anger, aging, sadness, depression, triumphs, and disappointments. These are words that describe the emotions found in the private pages of her diaries and letters. After a ten-year journey, Love, Activism, and the Respectable Life of Alice Dunbar-Nelson has a publishing home. A lesson: Never give up.
Beyond acknowledging the ancestral voices of these Black women who inspire me, this work reflects conversations with WGSS and AADS undergraduate and graduate students, community members, colleagues, writing retreat sisters, and of course, Linda Carlisle and the women who had the vision for what was named the Linda Arnold Carlisle Excellence Professorship. A Lesson: A woman with a vision can change the world.
But, there is more than the research. In this position, I worked with brilliant graduate students who dug through Black newspaper archives to help me expand my knowledge. I served on more WGSS thesis committees, wrote letter of references for graduate students, and supervised WGSS graduate and undergraduate in independent studies. A Lesson: Surround your writing self with students.
Another one of my joys has been the times I was able to bring the work of other Black women to UNCG. State Sen. Gladys Robinson made the time to talk with WGSS and AADS students for a brown bag lunch. National Humanities Center fellow Dr. Andrea Williams gave a talk. And, this year, Dr. Tracy Sharpley-Whiting (Vanderbilt), Dr. Jennifer Nash (Duke), and Dr. Sharon Holland (UNC-Chapel Hill) were featured speakers for our first Black Feminist Symposium (October 15, 2020). Zoom (thanks HNAC) made it possible for 300 people to attend from three different countries. Behind the scenes there was always a dynamic team of supporters—WGSS program coordinators, graduate students, and the WGSS directors (Mark and Lisa).
To be sure, being LAC Excellence Professor was a highlight of my twenty-one year career. In my application, I proposed to finish two books and to invite two speakers to campus. I leave satisfied that, like the ancestors I name above, I have done the work and left the community much improved.