ann ducille, “feminism, black and blue”

excerpts from ann ducille, “feminism, black and blue” (2011) in true confessions: feminist professors tell stories out of school, ed. susan gubar

“Some years ago, I wrote [in “The Occult of True Black Womanhood” (1994)] of what I called the crisis of black female intellectuals: the hyper-visibility, super-isolation, emotional quarantine, and psychic violence of our precarious positions in academic. I noted that black feminist scholars had played a pivotal role in bringing the work of generations of African American women from the depths of obscurity into the ranks of the academy, but I also suggested that we had paid a heavy price for this labor—in exhaustion, depression, loneliness, and a higher incidence of cancer and other killing diseases. Fifteen years later, I am, frankly, frightened by the extent to which these words seem even truer now than they were when I wrote them in 1994. I don’t know how the statistics on professional mortality stack up against other occupations, but black women in and around the academy seem to me to be dying at an alarming rate. And the evidence I’m drawing on is not anecdotal but personal and too close to home for any black woman scholar’s comfort.” (150)

sherley anne williams (1944-1999)

“In May 1998, more than two hundred teachers, scholars, critics, artists, and performers gathered at the University of California, San Diego, to honor and celebrate the work of the poet, novelist, critic, and UCSD literature professor Sherley Anne Williams. The three-day conference—”Black Women Writers and the ‘High Art’ of African American Letters”—was occasioned by the twelfth anniversary of the publication of Williams’s Pulitzer Prize-nominated novel Dessa Rose (1986)… None of us knew then—least of all Sherley Anne—that a year later we would again gather in her honor, but this time for her funeral. She was diagnosed with cancer the following April and died just three months later, on July 6, 1999, six weeks shy of her fifty-fifth birthday. As shocking, tragic, and untimely as her death is the sobering fact that several other black feminist writers and scholars who attended the conference in May 1998 have since also died of cancer: Barbara Christian in 2000, June Jordan and Claudia Tate in 2002 (Claudia was with us at the conference in spirit; she was already too ill from lung cancer in 1998 to make the cross-country journey from Princeton), VèVè Clark in 2007. These are the names I know; I fear there may be others from among the roster of conference participants. I do know that there are others—too many others—from among the general ranks of the black female professoriate. Most of these women, like almost all of those named above, were in their mid-fifties, although Sylvia Boone, the first black woman to be tenured at Yale, was just fifty-two when she died of heart failure in 1993. All of these women began their academic careers in the late 1960s or early 1970s as part of that pioneering generation of black women who helped open the doors of the academy to other underrepresented groups. All of them trained legions of graduate students who have become a kind of black feminist diaspora spreading across the academy.” (150-51)

“Because we were colleagues at UCSD, I knew Sherley Anne better than I knew most of the other black women academics who have been snatched from us. I know that she worked hard and worried a lot. I know that she felt bruised and battered by decades of doing battle in the master’s house and that in what turned out to be the last years of her life, the weary blues hovered over her like a thundercloud. She had begun a new project, though, a sequel to Dessa Rose; that and the conference had raised her spirits. Still, knowing that the marginalization, the isolation, the exhaustion were not hers alone but are shared conditions many of us have talked and written about, I have to wonder at the toll it takes—this life of the mind and imagination lived in the lion’s den.” (151)

“[B]lack women academics would do well, I think… to consider the ways in which our work environments and intellectual lives may be toxic, hazardous to our health.” (152)


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