I've Got A Story to Tell: Identity and Place in the Academy
reviewed by Barbara Wallace - 2001
Title: I've Got A Story to Tell: Identity and Place in the Academy
Author(s): Sandra Jackson and Jose Solis Jordan (Eds)
Publisher: Peter Lang Publishing, New York
ISBN: 0820438626, Pages: 167, Year: 1999
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Sandra Jackson and Jose Solis Jordan have produced an edited volume that transmits a chorus of voices covering the themes of racism, sexism, classism and homophobia in the academy. They've got a story to tell! But, are the majority of academics ready to listen?
From their "Introduction" it is clear that Jackson and Jordan clearly understand the nature and magnitude of what they are revealing, for they state that the book seeks to "break silences and to speak the unspeakable" (p.1.). They also know what they risk in presenting a body of material that may be dissected and rejected by the majority of academics in the name of intellectual discussion "until there is no humanity to the experience, nothing that should necessarily move one to struggle to understand the experiences of others who are different" (p.3).
Jackson and Jordan also forewarn how all too often "professors of color are accused of being overly sensitive, without humor, taking things too seriously, and looking for trouble where none exists." Yet, each honest voice that follows in the subsequent 13 chapters is nonetheless shared "with the intent to invite thoughtful reflection and deliberation about what it means to be, to struggle, to transform self and other in the practice of freedom in teaching and learning in higher education" (p.7). As such, they offer a compelling call to all to listen and learn and embrace a much needed transformation within the academy.
In the first chapter, as a Latino professor, Jose Solis Jordan offers a story about the experience with a foreign study program in the Yucatan that "forced these students to reveal their racism and the racism I encountered when attempting to engage in a transformative anti-racist pedagogy" (p.10). His story is powerful in conveying how white students "feared that any attempt to shake them loose from their lockjaw-like grip on the dominant version of the world was tantamount to chaos, internal and social" (p.15). Jordan also elaborates on how his pedagogy against racism is a pedagogy for the rehumanization of human experience. Despite the anguish associated with his experiences, Jordan continues to believe in the power of dialogue, as well as how "the racist will only be freed when the victim frees herself." This chapter also establishes the pattern and theme for the entire volume, as all authors take us through a painful tale only to end with pedagogical convictions born of academic agony, as well as offer a vision of hope.
In her chapter Jackson shares experiences as an African American woman coping with a white female student. Jackson asserts how "I have learned of occasions in which White students, claiming White skin privilege, have challenged teachers' authority and behaved in ways patently disrespectful with male and female professors of color" (p. 29). Jackson also ends with a philosophy born of her pain, offering it as a folk proverb: "when it comes to competence, it is for Whites to prove that they can't do something and it is for Blacks (and Others) to prove that they can" (p. 29). As her vision of hope, Jackson looks forward to the day students enter a classroom or learning context and expect the same level of competence for an African American professor that they would expect for a White professor.
As a Puerto Rican woman teaching courses on race, class and gender to primarily adult white students, Marisa Alicea explores the challenges inherent in her work, while conveying her desire to engage all students in liberation education. Of note, she admits "I may be unable to do so" (p. 37). One obstacle that she faces is "the reality that we in the United States have learned how not to talk about the problems of racism, sexism, and classism" (p.39). Another obstacle she cites, drawing upon the work of bell hooks, is how white males bring to the classroom "an insistence on the authority of experience, one that enables them to feel that anything they have to say is worth hearing, that their ideas and experiences should be the central focus of classroom discussion." Yet another obstacle is how some of her colleagues are concerned that "I have an agenda," that she is trying to impose her values and beliefs on students. Instead, Alicea sees herself as an educator "committed to devising pedagogical strategies that will challenge and engage all students" (p. 42).
In her chapter, Aminah B. McCloud shares in detail what it was like to encounter a Russian Jewish male of the type about which Alicea laments. McCloud's teaching challenge had everything to do with her identity as a Muslim African American female teaching Islamic Studies in a Midwest predominantly white private university. The pedagogical position in which she has since settled is honest, even as it may be less hopeful than the conclusions of other authors in the volume. She is now challenging the prevalent notion of the teacher as liberator. "The position in which one has to place oneself in order to conceptualize a liberation is increasingly difficult for me to accept" (p. 116). Instead, she has embraced the task of engaging students in honest conversation.
One begins to get the sense through the reading of these chapters that there is a process of maturation and expanding insight that informs the pedagogy of the authors as teachers, as they manage the challenges inherent in academia. Making this point, for example, is the chapter by K.E. Supriya who describes events during his first year as a faculty member in a private university in Chicago. This story conveys what it was like to be constructed as an "unfair person/professor of color who prescribed a text that unfairly silenced white culture" (p.46). But, Supriya also recognizes the empowerment process that students of color in the very same class underwent because of the selection of that text. Consistent with the theme of hope and a revised philosophy to guide teaching, Supriya aspires to continue to reach out to those who have known the pain of marginality--our "students who seek to transform the world from a space of Terror and Trauma for so many into a space of Faith" (p.54). We are also asked to embrace Supriya's goal of creating classrooms that can embrace the goal of treating each other with human dignity.
Gladys M. Jimenez-Munoz writes in her chapter as a feminist historian. She exposes the hopeful process by which even the most difficult white students "began to grasp notions of oppression" (p. 64), even after they initially engaged in "conceptual gymnastics to shut out difference" (p.63). We again glimpse hope after an outpouring of painful observations about the struggle to teach and advance in the academy for those who are women of color, from the laboring classes, or lesbian and bisexual scholars. Jimenez-Munoz makes it painfully clear that "we and our perspectives rarely even make it to the center of course bibliographies, book contents, conference topics, research programs, and so on" (p. 59). Speaking the unspeakable in eloquent tones, she elaborates on what usually happens when such scholarship is included. It is "authenticated by some white, middle-class, and presumably straight women--the latter, again, being the ones already established and well known" (p. 59). As a result, her pedagogical practice includes the attempt in the classroom to "unpack and carry out a critical analysis of the texts simultaneously" (p.60).
Alicia Chavira-Prado, as a Latina anthropologist, similarly strikes at the heart of academia with her piercing analysis of how work on our own communities is negatively viewed. Any such self-representational work is "discouraged or prohibited" and condemned for lacking academic rigor. She points out how censorship in the academy serves to prohibit pedagogical autonomy and creativity. Despite this opposition, Chavira-Prado's pedagogy reflects how she insists on studying Mexican culture and working on the struggle to teach to transgress, following bell hooks.
As a woman born and raised in China, King (Lucy) Lu makes the reader aware of what it is like to have to encounter the task of identity negotiation and transformation for the very first time, once teaching in an American college. As a professor of communication, Lu reveals the denigration and disrespect known to those who are nonnative speakers of English, including students laughing in class over her pronunciation with an accent and complaints on course evaluations that the teacher should be able to speak English. Being made aware of both American student's racism and her cultural identity for the first time, Lu and her students, nonetheless, undertook the task of pursuing identity transformation, as well as positive change and growth through teaching and learning. Similarly, Fassil Demissie, being born in Ethiopia, had to learn that the classroom is also a place where the politics of identity, teaching, and learning are negotiated. Once in the United States, he had to undertake the slow and painful process of constructing a "racial" self, as well as becoming black. Teaching Urban Studies at DePaul University, Demissie has developed a pedagogy wherein students are challenged to critically interrogate the images, or stereotypes that abound--images "embedded with assumptions, beliefs, and values which are rooted in power and difference" (p. 133). Through these two chapters, the United States emerges as some unique setting in which all immigrants must learn the painful process of identity negotiation and transformation.
As one reads this collection of stories, the question begins to loom large of how survival is even possible. The final chapters answer this question, making the volume complete. Both Stephen Nathan Haymes, an African American, and Maria R. Vidal, a Cuban, echo each other in citing parental strengths as key to survival. For Haymes, his black working class parents taught him self-dignity and perseverance in a white supremacist culture, and their values gave him the strength to go through the storm. This strength allows him to survive being a border person, a border academic who speaks truth to power, even if it means he is labeled "difficult," or "uncooperative," or "emotional." Vidal, on the other hand, cites her parents' courage, compassion, and perseverance, as well as their strong sense of social responsibility. She survived academia's inquisition of her because of these attributes, even as she feels like the lonely and displaced immigrants that her parents once were, having taken a trip to a new and strange land that both marginalized and included them, just as academia marginalizes and includes her.
Luis-Ortiz Franco takes a different route to arrive at the same conclusion regarding the importance of finding strength in one's culture and history in order to survive academia. His story describes an initial unfavorable tenure decision under the leadership of one hard-nosed cheerleader who persevered in his objections until the rest of the tenure committee followed along. On a brighter note, he also describes his long battle to have that decision successfully reversed. In this manner, Franco became the first member of a historically underrepresented group to attain tenure in the 132-year history of this university. Franco offers practical recommendations for others who are in similar predicaments, offering hope to the untenured masses and a sound well-rounded philosophy on survival.
The question we all face is whether or not academia intends to do anything about the myriad of problems that are ever so clearly and poignantly spelled out in this edited volume. Perhaps the most important question of all is whether the majority of academics are even ready to listen, no matter how compelling the story any marginalized or oppressed academic has to tell--speaking the unspeakable. Fortunately, this book exists as a vital tool for practical use in the work of getting the majority of academics to face the issues squarely. And, there is now excellent mandatory reading for putting into proper perspective one's personal experiences of racism, sexism, classism, or homophobia in the academy.