In Search of My Mother’s Garden

Abstract: Alice Walker is a Pulitzer Prize winner who has written several best-selling novels and has had her works inspire popular movies. In the work “In Search of My Mother’s Garden”, Walker (1983) explores the lived experience of her own mother through the perspective of African-American women both in the past and present. The words of Walker include the excluded and give a voice to Black women. This article will analyze how Black women used their voices to express their creativity. The article will first explore how Walker used her unique writing style and methodology to shine light on the creative spirit of Black women and how it was expressed in the face of daily discrimination, abuse and violence. The article will explore the various ways Black women demonstrated their creativity. The article will also compare the lives of creative white women and Black women to illustrate the differences in the origin and expressions of creativity. The article will next talk about the idolization of Black women as “saints” and if that perspective is warranted. The article makes use of the words of Walker herself and the author’s personal narratives as examples of the resilient creativity of Black women in support of Walker’s perspective.


My mother’s name was Ora Mai. “Ms. Reese,” as we affectionally called her, birthed and raised eight children, four boys, and four girls, and was a domestic abuse survivor. She supported herself and her children by working as a food service supervisor on the Fort Campbell Army Base in Kentucky for thirty years. My mother had a massive heart attack due to a life of imbalance and working much more than she played. Mom survived a myocardial infarction, but her life changed when she was declared disabled. Her medical condition forced Ora Mai to retire abruptly at the age of forty-nine. For the last twenty years of her life, she was active in her church and passed the time by planting a beautiful vegetable garden. My maternal grandmother Hattie raised fourteen children, nine girls, and five boys. “Mama” Hattie never worked outside of her home. Her husband Peter died early, and she never remarried. Mama Hattie also planted a beautiful garden, which helped to support her family. In the midst of unimaginable challenges they faced daily, both women chose to plant gardens, and I always wondered why.

In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens

Alice Walker’s famous work “In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens” enlightened me when she wrote about Black women like my mother and grandmother. Walker wrote about black mothers and grandmothers throughout the past hundred years or more and portrayed them as hidden artists. Walker explains, “For these grandmothers and mothers of ours were not saints, but artists; driven to a numb and bleeding madness by the springs of creativity in them for which there was no release” (230-231). The black woman was subject to the most humiliating and degrading existence possible. They were treated as sexual objects by the men in their lives, which included their owners, their lovers, or whoever took an interest at the moment. These women were not saints as Walker notes but were made into saints because of the pejorative treatment they received at the hands of others. Walker’s work also paraphrased Okot p’Bitek’s great poem when she wrote, “O, my clanswomen let us cry together!  Let us mourn the death of our mother, the death of a queen…the creator of our stool is lost! And all the young women have perished in the wilderness” (Walker 231). The tone of the poem is beyond melancholic; it is hopeless. The mothers and grandmothers of centuries past endured a midnight that never gave the promise of a new day.

Nevertheless, they found reasons to live where no reason existed. Alice Walker helped me see the gardens of Ora Mai and “Mama” Hattie in a new light. Walker helped me see that the gardens they worked on every day meant more than the food it produced.

The Garden Metaphor

The metaphor of a garden used by Alice Walker can take on different meanings for different persons in different settings. Walker chose to use the metaphor of a garden to represent the fact that every person lives life in search of a garden. In her work, Walker portrays the garden as a space of peace and “somebodiness” where the gardener’s life means something. In the African American experience, the search for a garden space requires a fight from the day they are born against racism and systemic disenfranchisement because of their skin color. The most current example of the fight African Americans are facing every day is the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic. It has again revealed the precariousness of the African American family in this nation. In the beginning, COVID-19 did not appear to discriminate as it spread. However, as collected data has revealed, COVID-19 disproportionately affects African Americans because of the health disparities between whites and people of color (Godoy). The data shows that African Americans become sicker at a higher rate, are hospitalized longer, and die more frequently than white persons. COVID-19 has proved the adage “when a white person catches a cold, a black person gets pneumonia.”

The Hidden Artist in the Garden

The “artist” in African American women cannot be easily identified. Walker identified artistry as expressed in their spirituality, which is defined as a deep belief in the unseen world independent of religious affiliation. African American women have drawn strength from attending and singing in the church (235). Their active participation in the church was a conflation of church and lived experience that gave rise to creativity that seemed to keep life’s madness and frustration under control.

Walker illustrated the hidden artistry of African American women when she juxtaposed author Virginia Woolf’s life with that of author Phyllis Wheatley. Walker points to the classic work of Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own, and commends Woolf because, “in order for a woman to write fiction she must have two things, a room of her own and money to support herself” (232). Walker points this out to acknowledge the difficulty of all women to be taken seriously as artists and creators in the early 1900s. Walker affirms the difficulty of even white women to express their artistry. However, Walker does point out that because Woolf was white, she could write and use her earnings to rent her own room and make enough money to support herself. Woolf’s life ended when she committed suicide. Walker described the end of Woolf’s life by writing, “any woman born with a great gift would have ended her days… having been hindered or thwarted by contrary instincts that she would most certainly lose her health or sanity” (232). Walker acknowledged both that Woolf’s artistry contributed to her death and that she made a choice in the midst of mental illness to end her life and did not die at the hands of others who hated her.

In contrast, Phyllis Wheatley, a fellow author, battled poor health throughout her life yet managed to create meaning for her life when others saw her as meaningless. The “contrary instincts” Woolf experienced in her life was also the lived experience of Wheatley. She was captured as a slave at seven and forced to work for a cruel master. She lived the entirety of her life, wasting away in loveless relationships while raising children and writing poetry. Wheatley was still able to create great works of art in spite (or some would argue because of) the pain and anguish she experienced daily. The level of creativity she demonstrated was only limited by her circumstances. Unlike her white counterpart Woolf, Wheatley did not choose to die, but, like Woolf, she found a way to overcome her circumstances to express her creativity through her writing.

African American women artists like Phyllis Wheatley lived with two inhumane realities. The first reality was that they were forced to live life in a proverbial waiting room. They had to wait to see if their children would be sold away from their loving arms. They had to wait to see if the man who sired the child would play the role of a guest or a husband, or perhaps would be sold and not have any options. They would often wait a long time hoping for a good outcome for African American women, only to be perpetually disappointed. The other reality is that these artists were forced to live in anonymity. They were unknown and dismissed, except for the few people within their family circle. The gifts of poetry, singing, writing, politics, and architecture went unacknowledged and unexpressed because there was no public outlet for them, and their gifts died with them. Even when these artistic, talented women had the opportunity to make something beautiful out of nothing, their contributions would often be stolen and go unattributed. Walker described one example in the following story, “In the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C, there hangs a quilt unlike any other in the world. In fanciful, inspired, and yet simple and identifiable figures. It is made of pieces of worthless rags that tell the story of the Crucifixion. The art is priceless. There is a note that says by an anonymous black woman in Alabama” (236).

How Artistry Survived in the Garden

Walker asks her readers to consider the following question: What has kept the artistry and genius within these mothers and grandmothers alive century after century despite their circumstances? Poet Jean Toomer took a tour of the Southern states and referred to the African American women he observed: “as mules of the world” (Walker 230). His description denied them of a title that may have afforded them any semblance of humanity. Walker characterized Toomer’s observations in the following way: “These crazy saints stared out at the world like lunatics, or quietly like suicides; and the ‘God that was in their gaze was as mute as a stone’’ (230). In his opinion, African American women lived lives of mundanity and dreamed dreams that no one knew, including themselves. Walker sought to answer several questions about how African American women were able to achieve the impossible. How did these mothers and grandmothers maintain their sanity? How did they not only survive but thrive? How did they continue to create as they performed demeaning tasks like cooking, cleaning, and caring for the children of people who hated them? The author’s own admission took her several years to come upon the answer, but she finally found it in her mother’s flower garden. Walker described her revelation in the following way: “She grew more than fifty varieties of flowers. People would stop by her house and ask permission to walk the sacred space. My mother adorned whatever shabby house we lived in with flowers. Before she left home for the fields, she watered her flowers, chopped up the grass and laid out new beds” (237).

Walker said that when her mother was in her garden, her face was radiant and there was a peacefulness in her soul. It seems that her mother’s garden was an outdoor cathedral whose members were this variety of flowers. The music was provided by the sounds of the wind. Whatever she planted grew as if by magic. Walker’s description shows that her mother found her connection with spirituality not in a Holy Book nor in a preacher spewing out platitudes that offered no real comfort for everyday struggles. Walker’s mother’s garden was her place of refuge and meaning that had been used by generations of women before her. 

African American women found their voices in their gardens. Their voices were muted by law, tradition, and kin, yet they found their creative expression in small plots of land that they did not own on paper but worked and cared for with their souls. These artists found in their gardens a homegrown hope. The lashes of an angry master could not kill their creativity when they were working in the garden. The mutilations carved into their flesh by men and childbirth would not diminish their inner joy. Walker mused over how African American women’s souls would have been robbed of amazing works of creativity if the world had successfully muted the artistic genius of artists like Phyllis Wheatley, Lucy Terry, Zora Hurston, Nella Larsen, Bessie Smith, Elizabeth Catlett or Katherine Dunham (235).

Portraits of Artistry in the Gardens

This picture is of Rosa Dale, taken in 1925. “Mama” Rosa is the grandmother of Fred Dale, who married my oldest sister Margaret in 1966. The picture shows the land and home where she gardened and that she could own from “providential” means that were never fully known. “Mama” Rosa is the quintessential artist that Walker is celebrating. Rosa Dale had ten siblings and was born on a plantation that is now Camden, Alabama. During the slavery era, the land was owned by the Dale and McReynolds families. A split between the families occurred, and the land was divided between the two families. Their slaves were also divided, and their families retained either the McReynolds or Dale’s last name. “Mama” Rosa never learned to read or write, but she would use her garden’s harvest to provide for her family. Despite her circumstances and limitations, this artist motivated her children and grandchildren to become physicians, educators, engineers, attorneys, and business owners. None of that would have happened without the provisions of “Mama” Rosa’s garden.

In this picture is my Cousin Naomi. She is the widow of a pastor. Naomi planted a garden that produced the fruit and vegetables in the photograph. All of the produce was given away to persons in the community at no charge. After her husband died in 2012, she continued to grow the fruit and vegetables that supplements her meager pension. Cousin Naomi has received numerous commendations for her produce quality in local newspaper articles, and she shares her gift teaching gardening to other seniors. Naomi is well into her 80s and is still gardening.

“Mama” Rosa and Cousin Naomi are the epitomai of the “head ragged generals” that paved the way for their children and their children’s children (Walker 238). Despite being denied the opportunities to participate fully in society, they found outlets for their creativity in their gardens that provided for their families. They ended up making long-lasting contributions to their communities, even in the midst of their circumstances. These women prove Walker’s point that the artistry they expressed within their homes’ confines allowed them to find meaning for themselves despite the constraint society placed upon them.


Alice Walker’s work In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens is a literary masterpiece that provides a rare portrayal of African American women’s resilience as expressed by their gardens. She takes readers on a trip back through time to experience the struggles of African Americans during slavery with her detailed descriptions of the cotton fields, the harsh overseers, the auction blocks, and other atrocities. Walker’s discovery of the garden as the outlet for creativity and a space of refuge in her work provides a great insight into how common people could survive generation after generation of struggling while still maintaining their dignity and self-respect.  My mother, Ora Mai, grew a remarkable garden for the last twenty-two years of her life. Although she has been away from me physically for twenty-five years, I can still remember seeing the faraway look in her eyes that had nothing to do with seeds and weeds. It never dawned on me before reading Walker’s work that the plot of the ground meant so much to her. Alice Walker gave me a portrait of my mom that no camera can capture. I found peace and wept tears of gratitude for what the garden meant to her. There is a dire need for more gardens in America that can eventually grow seeds of peace for our black mothers and women, leading to the systemic change we need to see in our society.

Works Cited

Godoy, Maria. “What Do Coronavirus Racial Disparities Look Like State By State?”. Accessed 30 May 2020.

Walker, Alice. In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens: Womanist Prose. Harvest Harcourt, 1983.

The Rhetoric of Beyonce’s Formation

Abstract: After its release on February 6, 2016, Beyoncé Knowles’s visual song “Formation” garnered a variety of responses from popular culture critics, scholars, and public figures. If one were to listen to the music and lyrics without viewing the video, the conclusion could be drawn that the song is simply a tribute to Knowles’s southern roots, a declaration of her personal preferences, and a celebration of her agency as an independent black woman. However, Beyoncé’s embodiment of the West African female deity Mami Wata in the video signals engagement in a discourse about history, spirituality, gender, sexuality, power, capitalism, and geography that sets “Formation” apart from the superstar’s catalogue of popular music.

Mami Wata represents the nurturing and destructive forces of nature; women as the purveyors and preservers of culture, and of life. She is a wily and beautiful sea goddess – a divine trickster—known for her ability to enchant men, her fascination with modernity, and her spiritually and materially restorative powers. The Formation video combines elements of Afrofuturist, womanist, and feminist principles to affirm the richness of Black American culture while reminding Black women of their power and the necessity that they use it to ensure black survival. This presentation explores Mami Wata’s (Beyoncé’s) call to action: “Okay ladies, now let’s get in formation” and why it is necessary for black women to do so.

“What are you doing if you are not reflecting the times? That to me is the definition of an artist?”

-Nina Simone

Breaking Down the Discourse of “Formation”

This paper focuses on the ways the lyrics, music, dance and visual presentation of “Formation”, along with Beyoncé Knowles’s ethos as a cultural icon, come together to provide a reflection on the socio-political climate at the time of the visual song’s release, as well as a snapshot of black history, within a coded format that is consistent with the African American tradition of emancipatory artistry. It is important to note that Trayvon Martin’s birthday was on February 5. He would have been 21 years old in 2016. The Lemonade visual album, which includes the song “Formation”, was released on February 6, 2016 and that year the Superbowl took place in Oakland, California, a city well known for its black activism. Additionally, 66% of the athletes in the NFL are African American men. What better way to celebrate Black History Month and black Americans than during, arguably, the most prestigious sporting event of the year, America’s game?

After its release, Beyoncé Knowles’s “Formation” video garnered a variety of responses from popular culture critics, members of academia, and public figures, including former mayor of New York City, Rudy Giuliani. In an interview with in 2016, Giuliani states:

Can’t you figure out who you’re putting on? I mean this is a political position, she’s probably going to take advantage of it. You’re talking to middle America when you have the Super Bowl, so you can have entertainment. Let’s have, you know, decent wholesome entertainment, and not use it as a platform to attack the people who, you know, put their lives at risk to save us. (par. 9)

If one were to listen to the music and lyrics without viewing the video, the conclusion could be drawn that the song is simply a tribute to Knowles’s southern roots, a declaration of her personal preferences, and a celebration of her agency as an independent black woman. However, when viewing the video while listening to the music, and conducting a close reading of the lyrics, it is clear the narrative Beyoncé presents is far more complex and deeply political, though maybe not in the way that Giuliani suggests. It is not anti-law-enforcement, but rather, pro-black-survival, a celebration of blackness. In her article “Critical Discourse Analysis – A Primer”, Sue L.T. McGregor asserts that:

Discourse analysis challenges us to move from seeing language as abstract to seeing our words as having meaning in a particular historical, social, and political condition. Even more significant, our words (written or oral) are used to convey a broad sense of meanings and the meaning we convey with those words is identified by our immediate social, political, and historical conditions. (par. 4)

The musical style of the song is a subgenre of hip hop known as Trap Bounce. The term “trap music” refers to a specifically southern style of hip hop. The “trap” is the name given to the streets of poor black neighborhoods or the trap houses where cocaine deals are made. Southern rappers usually rapped about drug dealing in the genre’s inception. Bounce music is a style of hip hop which originated in the projects of New Orleans and is influenced by the city’s deeply rooted musical traditions. Producing a song in this musical style immediately signals entry into a creatively, chronologically and geographically black space, rife with suffering and full of triumph.

The language Knowles uses to communicate her personal/public narrative is what Geneva Smitherman refers to as Black Dialect, Black Language, or Black English. Smitherman writes:

Black Dialect is an Africanized form of English reflecting Black America’s linguistic-cultural African Heritage and the conditions of servitude, oppression and life in America. Black Language is Euro-American speech with an Afro-American meaning, nuance, tone, and gesture. The Black idiom is used by 80 to 90 percent of American Blacks, at least some of the time. (2)

Knowles’s use of rhyme, current cultural colloquialisms such as “haters”, “fly”, “twirl”, “rock”, and “trick” (among others), as well as call and response, give the song a hip hop/spoken word quality. This distinction is important because it sets “Formation” apart from the rest of her catalogue of popular music. Hip Hop and spoken word poetry traditionally have been vehicles for black activist rhetoric. A common feature of these forms is their ability to entertain and inform simultaneously, with the goal being to “drop knowledge” while using a rhythmic mnemonic device that can be remembered and repeated.

The name “Formation” itself implies a planned arrangement or structure. This refers to the construction of knowledge about blackness, black womanhood, and black oppression. It also applies to the structure of Black Language, which has historically been associated with a lack of intellectual ability and education. However, this dialect with its regional variations, has a concrete set of grammatical rules that are understood by most black people to some degree due to a shared history and experience, yet more difficult for others outside the culture to interpret. A New Yorker article on the topic of Black English paraphrases the linguist John McWhorter: “…someone who studied Black English as a foreign language would have a hard time figuring out when, and how, to deploy it”. The title of the song is also a call to action, a pledge of solidarity, and the establishment of a structure of protection against an ensuing battle, all of which Knowles directs toward black women as she repeatedly chants, “Ok, ladies now let’s get in formation” (cause I slay)” (“Formation”).

What Knowles seems to be requesting is protection against the decimation of black culture and black bodies. Her enlistment of women speaks to the power of the feminine principal: the role of women as purveyors and preservers of culture and of life. When she says, “Slay trick or you get eliminated”, she is not simply talking about a dancer getting cut from an audition if she does not “kill” the moves (“Formation”). She is imploring women to do what is necessary to save blackness, in all its forms, from being eliminated: historically, culturally, geographically and physically. In this case, the use of the typically misogynistic term “trick”, meaning slut or prostitute, is turned on its head. Knowles uses this as a code word to mean a cunning, or wily woman who can use her wits to outsmart those who underestimate her. This character creation is reminiscent of the trickster character common in African folktales, only in female form. Creating a female trickster is an indictment of sexism and an empowerment of women.

“Formation” was directed by Melina Matsoukas, who was interviewed by The New York Times in December of 2016. The journalist, Wesley Morris, made this comment: “It was exciting seeing the world re-engage with a music video as a formal work. We weren’t just talking about Beyoncé with “Formation”. We were talking about history, current affairs, art and politics” (par. 7). Matsoukas responded:

That wasn’t anything expected. I had no idea that it would have that reaction and initiate those kinds of conversations. That was very satisfying as an artist to be a part of that. I feel there’s been a lot of racial injustice in our community, and we’re hungry for somebody to say something and for somebody as strong as Beyoncé to say something and show value to people of color. (par. 7)

Discourse Analysis

As it opens, the video has the grainy quality of a VHS tape and the words “parental advisory” appear like the digital print out on a desktop computer screen. The message warns adults there will be explicit language. This documentary-like introduction has the power to transport the viewer to the period between the late 1970s and 1990s when politicians; and others such as Tipper Gore were waging a freedom-of-speech war on rap music and any music that had any language or political message that went against “the establishment”. In this context, Beyoncé is bringing forth a powerful message that black people’s fight to speak and to be heard continues, and that she will not be silenced. The first words are uttered by Messy Mya, a queer Bounce rapper and YouTuber notorious in the New Orleans music and social media scenes, who was murdered in 2010. Beyoncé stands on the roof of a police car that is submerged in water, giving the impression that she is rising from the water. She is wearing a red and white dress. This image evokes the West African female deity, Mami Wata, who, according to Edward Chukwurah, “in her most modern incarnation, is sea-faring, openly gender-queer, and has a love of flashy and foreign gadgets. Her attachment to modernity and greater destructiveness are reflections of the scorn of tradition, as well as the cultural anxiety inflicted by Western influences” (par. 1). Mami Wata is also known for her beauty and power to enchant men, as well as her power to offer spiritual and material healing to her people. Messy Mya proclaims (0:04): “What happened at the New Orleans? Bitch, I’m back by popular demand!” Then, music plays as a montage of black bodies, violence, nightlife, black neighborhoods, the “Black Church” and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina appear and disappear. This song is as much a personal “shout out” to Messy Mya, as it is a statement about respect for all black identities, black resilience, outrage over the marginalization and oppression of black citizens at the hands of law enforcement and political officials of the city, and a declaration that black New Orleans is back. The feminist and spiritual aspects of this song/video are clearly engaging each other in a discourse about history, religion, gender, sexuality and power.

Beyoncé is stationary now reclining on the police car (0:21). Her demeanor is intensely focused and ripe with ennui as she describes the superficial red-carpet treatment and relentless criticism she receives, due to her stardom. She addresses the speculation about her marriage and her wealth when she speaks the lyrics, “I’m so reckless when I rock my Givenchy dress. I’m so possessive so I rock his Roc necklaces” (0:33). All the while the music is a repetitive background beat. Then, as she gives what she believes to be her pedigree – her own understanding of who she truly is and where she comes from – the music builds: “My daddy, Alabama. Mama, Louisiana. You mix that negro with that Creole make a Texas ‘bama” (1:37). The repetitive beat becomes Bounce dance music, a celebration, an indication that something very important is about to be said, and she is fully, energetically engaged.

Knowles uses metaphor and Black Language to create layers of meaning about her personal identity, female identity, and black identity in general. McGregor contends that:

“Even one word can convey strong meaning—connotations! These connotations are not always, or seldom, in the dictionary, but often assigned on the basis of the cultural knowledge of the participants. Connotations associated with one word, or through metaphors and figures of speech, can turn the uncritical viewer’s mind” (par. 15).

Beyoncé sings, “I like my baby hair with baby hair and afros. I like my negro nose with Jackson five nostrils. Earned all this money but they never take the country out me. I got hot sauce in my bag swag” (0:45). She is responding to criticisms about her daughter’s natural hair that have surfaced in social media, but using the Black English practice of dropping the possessive indicator so she can be understood to be talking about her own hair as well: “I like my baby hair” instead of “I like my baby’s hair…”. In fact, she is talking about herself, her daughter and all black women being free to make their own decisions about what is beautiful to them, particularly pertaining to hair. This is evidenced by images of black women wearing a plethora of hairstyles throughout the video.

Knowles goes on to use language in the same way to address criticism that has long been present in the media about her husband’s physical appearance: “I like my negro nose” instead of “I like my negro’s nose…”. Again, though she is directly stating she likes the way her husband looks, she is also talking about her own nose, and black noses in general. She uses the metaphor “Jackson Five nostrils” to make a statement about black noses that is respectful and positive on the one hand, since the Jackson Five is iconic in black culture. On the other hand, she is also speculating on “post-Jackson Five nostrils” and the attendant internalized oppression and self-hatred that could be at the root of the surgical alteration of black body parts to resemble white features more closely. The verse ends with Knowles proclaiming that the money she has earned does not change her. The “hot sauce in my bag swag” line implies a secret spicy ingredient or hidden weapon she has but one that many black women, particularly black southern women, possess.

The bridge between the first and second verses returns to the repetitive background beat, but the precedent has been set. The viewer can sense that more knowledge is about to be dropped. Messy Mya is again featured (1:00) in a sample taken from the YouTube video “A 27-Piece, Huh?”, in which he is expressing appreciation for a woman’s hairstyle, as he randomly talks to people walking around the French Quarter. That sample is immediately followed by a brief commentary by queer Bounce artist Big Freedia, who makes it clear that she did not come to play and expresses an appreciation for “cornbreads and collard greens”, or what is known as soul food in the “Black Community”. Both performers speak in a variation of Black Language that is unique to New Orleans. Their comments make their presence clear and demand acknowledgement. These portions of the song serve to reintroduce Beyoncé, while asserting the right for black people of all identities to exist in a way that centers them.

Knowles uses language that is heavily laden with racist connotations, but she does so in an emancipatory way that requires requalification and redefinition of certain terms. Words such as “negro”, “bama”, and “yellow bone” have all historically been tools of categorization of black people, their level of intelligence and morality, and their proximity to whiteness. She creates a framework in which such language has uplifting prideful black meaning rather than the dehumanizing and denigrating meanings assigned to it by white racists. She says that when she sees something and wants it (2:00), she goes after it and she may use her “trickster” qualities to attain it. Her statement that “I stunt, yellow bone it” implies that she uses white assumptions about black people and complexion to her advantage. There has been criticism of this line as colorist and indicative of her “light-skinned privilege”. However, it is possible that Knowles recognizes the historical significance of this concept – known as passing – as a means by which black folks have been able to gain access to resources and opportunities they would otherwise be unable to access. For many black folks and their families, taking advantage of light-skinned privilege, or passing, has meant the difference between surviving or not. But, for Beyoncé, passing or taking advantage of her privilege as a black woman with a “light” complexion is not a permanent state of being embedded in secrecy or shame, but rather, a means to an end that centers black people of all appearances and identities as valuable and powerful by standards of their own making, as we see in the church pews, the second lines, beauty supply stores, and the family portraits on textured walls.

The second verse of “Formation” can be interpreted as a feminist commentary on women’s independence and sexual agency : “If he fuck me good, I take his ass to Red Lobster” (2:57). This line implies women’s sexual agency, their right to decide whether the sex with a given partner is “good sex” or not, and their ability to provide the man with a good meal as reward for his sexual prowess. However, considering the multiple layers of meaning in the song, this is just one perspective. Knowles is also making an economic and political commentary. Red Lobster, which is a moderately priced restaurant chain that originated in Florida, has become a cultural symbol among black Americans. Yet, footage in the video shows restaurants in black neighborhoods that have been closed down in the wake of Katrina. A take-out box of crawfish, which cannot be found on a Red Lobster menu, but is notorious fare in New Orleans, makes a cameo appearance. The reference to Red Lobster and the subsequent images of closed black-owned restaurants and crawfish can be interpreted as a commentary on how a capitalist system contributes to the demise of a self-sustaining black economy while it allows popular chain restaurants to thrive, although they do not meet the needs of the communities they serve.

Beyoncé goes on to state, “If he hit it right, I might take him on a ride on my chopper. Drop him off at the mall, let him buy some Js, let him shop, uhhh” (3:04). During the Hurricane Katrina event, both Condolezza Rice and George Bush were criticized for their failure to respond to the crisis in a timely manner. Paraphrasing a U.S. News and World Report article, contributor Kenneth T. Walsh reported that Bush flew over New Orleans in Air Force One to survey the area (par. 6-7) before returning to Washington D.C. from a vacation in Texas. Another paraphrase of illuminates the ides that Rice was shopping for expensive shoes in New York City (par. 4). Beyoncé’s lyrics are a codified way of alerting black people to the lack of care exhibited by the administration in dealing with this devastating event. In the video, she flips the double fisted finger. It is possible that those fingers were meant for Bush and Rice as a reflective look at their neglect of duty and obligation to protect the black citizens of New Orleans.

Toward the end of the video (4:00), white policemen stand on the street, in “Formation”, donning riot gear, as a small black boy in black pants and a hoody dances in front of them. He suddenly stops and spreads his arms wide. The policemen raise their hands in the air as the words “stop shooting us”, spray painted on a wall, flash on the screen. This is at once a commentary on how young black males are viewed by white supremacist society as being a threat to “law and order” merely by their organic performance of blackness and of youth, and a statement that black emancipatory artistry is a performance of resistance against this system of oppression. In an NPR interview, filmmaker Dream Hampton shares her perspective:

I think that the image with the boy who’s basically conducting a police lineup is magic. This is about them being in a trance, and them having to do what they usually try to make him do, which is put their hands up. The next cut about “Stop shooting us, it’s not the black power moment that we got in the late ’60s and ’70s, which she referenced on the actual Super Bowl day, with the Black Panther beret, but it is absolutely a message that comes straight out of Ferguson: “Hands up, don’t shoot”.

I think it was incredibly powerful. I think it was also a nod to Tamir Rice, you know. It’s about a black visionary, a black future [where] we are imagining ourselves having power, and magic. And I think it’s beautiful. (par. 8-9)

The video closes with Beyoncé standing on what appears to be the porch of a plantation mansion, dressed in black, as a group of well-dressed black men (also in black) stand watch around her. She says, “You know you dat bitch when you cause all this conversation. Always stay gracious. Bes’ revenge is yo’ paper” (4:30). As she, again, reclaims a word – bitch – her statement is not borne of braggadocio about her personal wealth. It is a statement about the necessity for black people, especially black women, to amass wealth as a form of resistance. Finally, Mami Wata (Beyoncé) sinks into the water reclining on the roof of the police car, returning from whence she came; taking with her something as payment for the injustice that has been perpetrated. From the documentary “Trouble the Water”, which chronicles the Katrina disaster, we hear a man exclaim, “Golly, look at that wata, boy!” Mami Wata was summoned to protect, celebrate, embolden, and incite her people. Now, her work is done.

“Formation” and Womanist Discourse

Aside from being a rich multimodal example of how thoughtfully arranged cultural symbols can create a discourse about Black American history, black culture, and racism, Beyonce’s “Formation” also creates a womanist discourse in which she establishes black female identity and spirituality as a set of qualities, behaviors, and beliefs that run counter to Western notions of feminism, black feminine identity and spirituality.  Womanism is a concept first introduced by writer Alice Walker. In their article entitled “Alice Walker’s Womanism: Perspectives Past and Present”, Izgarjan and Markov paraphrase Walker’s description of Womanism:

Walker defines a womanist as a “black feminist or feminist of color” who loves other women and/or men sexually and/or nonsexually, appreciates and prefers women’s culture, women’s emotional flexibility and women’s strength and is committed to “survival and wholeness of entire people, male and female”. She firmly locates womanism within black matrilinear culture deriving the word from womanish used by black mothers to describe girls who want to “know more and in greater depth than is considered ‘good’ for anyone” and whose behavior is “outrageous, courageous or willful” (305).

By positioning herself as both the wealthy powerful, professional woman and the “Texas ‘bama”, Beyoncé unifies  the concepts of inaccessible superstar and the down to earth southern girl from “around the way”. She is making a statement about the wide range of characteristics of black womanhood, many of which are ignored or diminished by a white supremacist society. However, these identities are not ignored within a Womanist context. The video centers women of multiple identities: women twerking, women presenting themselves as southern “ladies”, women as mothers, women with sexual desire and discernment, women as bitches, women as rich and poor, women as beauty queens, women of various sizes, shades, and shapes, women as ordinary and as goddesses.  All these depictions are celebrated, as are the identities of non-binary members of the “Black Community”, children, and men. The focus of Womanism is the well-being and validation of all members of the community within the framework of a holistic embrace of feminine identity and spirituality.

Mami Wata’s appearance in the video underscores Knowles’s message: the black woman as a macrocosm, occupying a place in this world and in the supernatural world. Mami Wata, is often depicted as a mermaid, a creature who is both human and otherworldly. According to Christey Carwile in hamanism: An Encyclopedia of Word Beliefs, Practices and Cutlures, Volume 1, the colors red and white are often used to symbolize Mami Wata’s influence (929). The red is symbolic of death, destruction, masculinity, and power, while white symbolizes beauty, creation, femininity, water and wealth. The combination of the two colors and what they represent is an indication of the complexity of black womanhood. Woman is not only soft, pure, nurturing, spiritual, and beautiful. She is also powerful, sexual, materialistic, and dangerous. There is no qualification of these traits as good or bad within the values of Vodou spirituality. They just exist as aspects of life. The confluence of these two aspects of Mami Wata’s identity shatter the long-edified essentialist stereotypes of black women as either Mammy, Sapphire, or Jezebel, as well as the archetype of woman (Eve) being responsible for original sin, and thus responsible for the evil in the world that Christianity asserts is the nature of womanhood.  Mami Wata’s existence maintains that black women have the ability to be many, possibly all, things in a way that is valued, respected, and sometimes feared – as those with power often are – yet, never sinful. Henry John Drewal describes Mami Wata:

An Efik sculpture portraying Mami Wata as a human-fishgoat-priestess handling a bird and a snake demonstrates her hybridity and powers of transformation. She can also easily assume aspects of a Hindu god or goddess without sacrificing her identity. She is a complex multivocal, multifocal symbol with so many resonances that she feeds the imagination, generating, rather than limiting, meanings and significances: nurturing mother, sexy mama, provider of riches, healer of physical and spiritual ills, embodiment of dangers and desires, risks and challenges, dreams and aspirations, fears and forebodings. (62)

Throughout “Formation” there are scenes of a black male pastor preaching while the congregation, made up mostly of women, rejoices. The juxtaposition of African female cosmology and the traditional Black Church problematizes Christianity and the limitations it places on black women. In an article published in Time magazine in 2016, writers Omise’eke Natasha Tinsley and Caitlin O’Neill describe Beyoncé’s embodiment of the deity, Mami Wata, and the Conjure woman who summons her:

Yes, “Formation” evokes New Orleans’ Hoodoo and Voodoo traditions with Bey in witchy black before an abandoned plantation house. But I also mean conjure in the sense of marrying dreams, work and power to create a new world—a world where black women own their bodies, pleasures, and possibilities. “I dream it, I work hard, I grind ‘til I own it,” Bey sings, and I believe her.

Conjure women have become important figures for black feminists who refuse to accept the world we’ve been given. “In societies in which race and class are defining attributes of one’s life, the conjure woman’s spiritual disposition affords her the flexibility and prerogative to manipulate such confining spaces…to create safe, protective spaces for other people of color,” said Africana scholar Kameelah Martin. (par. 11-12)

According to a nationwide study conducted in 2012 by the Washington Post and the Kaiser Family Foundation, black women are among the most religious groups in the United States. Stacey Floyd-Thomas, an associate professor of Ethics and Society at Vanderbilt Divinity School, states that “black women’s strong faith is the result of the triple jeopardy of oppression caused by racism, sexism and classism” (par. 15). Yet, according to Anthony B. Pinn, a professor of Humanities and Religious Studies at Rice University, “their experience of oppression and marginalization are very similar within the church” (par. 16). In the article “Womanist theology”, Emilie Townes states that “womanist theology seeks to address the systemic oppression of women of color, the oppressive appropriation of the Bible by patriarchal churches and issues of black sexuality, among other important issues” (159).

Knowles uses her position as an entertainer to engage in a critical public discourse which transports the ordinary lives and experiences of black women from a micro level to a macro level discourse about power dynamics within white supremacist culture, black heteronormative relationships and sexist religious oppression. She reverses what T. A. Van Djik refers to as the positive presentation of the ingroup and “the negative presentation of the outgroup to challenge existing notions of power as they pertain to race and gender”. Van Djik contends that “powerful groups can control discourse through content, as well as the structures [or Formation] of text and talk” (356). By invoking multiple cultural symbols within the contexts of film, music, song, dance, history, politics and religion, Knowles assumes power and control, which she captures in a definitively black space and invites black people – black women – to occupy with her.

Works Cited

Beyoncé. “Pray You Catch Me.” Lemonade, Parkwood Entertainment, 2016,

Beyoncé. “Formation.” YouTube, uploaded by Beyoncé, 6 Feb. 2016,

Carwile, Christey. “Mami Wata Religion.” Shamanism: An Encyclopedia of World Beliefs, Practices, and Culture, edited by Mariko Namba Walter and Eva Jane Neumann Fridman, ABC-CLIO, 2004.

Cunningham, Vinson. “The Case for Black English.” The New Yorker, 9 July. 2019, Accessed 28 Oct. 2019.

Deal, Carl and Tia Lessin, director. Trouble the Water. Zeitgeist Films, 2008.

del Barco, Mandalit. “Beyoncé’s ‘Formation’ Is A Visual Anthem.” All Things Considered from NPR, 8 Feb. 2016,”Formation”-is-a-visual-anthem.

Dijk, Teun A. ” Principles of Critical Discourse Analysis.” Discourse & Society, vol. 4, no. 2, 1993, pp. 849-283.

Drewal, Henry John. “Mami Wata: Arts for Water Spirits in Africa and Its Diasporas.” African Arts, vol. 41, no. 2, 2008, pp. 60–83. JSTOR, Accessed 18 Aug. 2020.

Labbé-DeBose, Theola. “Black Women are Among Country’s Most Religious Groups.” Washington Post, 6 Jul 2012, Accessed 6 Feb. 2019.

McFadden, Syreeta. Beyoncé’s Formation reclaims black America’s narrative from the margins.” The Guardian, 8 Feb 2016, Accessed 22 Oct. 2019.

McGregor, Sue L. T. “Critical Discourse Analysis: A Primer.” Kappa Omicron Nu FORUM

Messy Mya. “Booking the Hoes From New Wildin.” YouTube, uploaded by TheeHHGz, 20 Aug. 2010,

Morris, Wesley. “Melina Matsoukas Touched Nerves from Behind the Camera.” The New York Times, 28 Dec. 2016, Accessed 22 Oct. 2019.

Ofosuah Johnson, Elizabeth. (2019, July 9). “Mami Wata, the Most Celebrated Mermaid-Like Deity From Africa Who Crossed Over To The West.” Face2Face Africa, 20 Jul. 2018, Accessed 22 Oct. 2019.

Parker, Ryan. “Beyonce’s Super Bowl Halftime Show Criticized by Rudy Giuliani as ‘Attack’ on Police.” The Hollywood Reporter, Accessed 22 Oct. 2019.

Rice, Condoleezza. “A Conversation with Condoleezza Rice.” About Campus, Vol. 20, no. 2, 2015, pp. 3-7. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1002/abc.21185.

Tinsley, Omise’eke Natasha, and Caitlin O’Neill. “Beyonce’s ‘Formation’ Is Activism for African Americans, Women and LGBTQ People.” Time, 8 Feb. 2016,

Townes, E. “Womanist Theology.” Union Seminary Quarterly Review, vol. 57, no. 3–4, Jan. 2003), pp. 159–176, Accessed 22 Oct. 2019. Vol. 15, No. 1, 2003, Accessed 22 Oct. 2019.

Walsh, Kennith. T. “The Undoing of George W. Bush.” U.S. News & World Report, 28 Aug., 2015, Accessed 22 Oct. 2019.

Ward, Jesmyn. “In Beyoncé’s ‘Formation,’ A Glorification Of ‘Bama’ Blackness.” 10 Feb. 2016 from NPR, 8 Feb. 2016,”Formation”-a-song-for-the-bama. Accessed 18 Oct. 2019.

Living in this Black Body: Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me (2015)

Abstract: This paper is based on a close reading of Coates’ autobiographical narrative, Between the World and Me (2015). It examines the ways in which the author examines the vulnerability of the black body in America. His question “how can one live within a black body, within a country lost in the Dream?” (12) is symptomatic of the title of the book which implies that the author is both alienated and dispossessed within the larger American world. However, this dispossession is not his alone, but it is characteristic of other marginalized groups in America, especially African Americans. Coates presents his experiences of living as a black person in America in the form of a letter to his son, Samori, to ensure that the latter does not become a victim of “the American Dream” (11). Written as an autobiographical narrative, the book shows Coates in continual interrogations with himself and his younger self, leading to shifting perspectives about his place and how to survive in “White America.”


This paper is based on a close reading of Coates’ autobiographical narrative, Between the World and Me. It examines the ways in which the author attempts to answer, what he refers to as, “the question of his life,” by narrating his experiences of being a black person in America (Coates 12). Coates presents these experiences in a letter form to his son, Samori. And the purpose of the letter is to ensure that his son does not become a victim of “the American Dream,” a Dream used to enslave and destroy the black body (11). The paper examines his key question, “how can one live within a black body, within a country lost in the Dream,” and what this question could mean in the American society (12). In the attempt to answer this question, Coates explores notions like the “American Dream” and concludes that those are abstract ideas which may be limited to those belonging to “White America.” However, his autobiography also demonstrates that belonging to “White America” is not only a function of race or color, it may also come from having economic and social privileges.    

In the memoir, Coates performs his role as the autobiographical narrator by consciously engaging in the act of self-interrogation and re-evaluations of knowledge. He constructs distinct voices for himself as the adult narrator, and a voice for his younger self. Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson refer to these voices as the “narrating ‘I’” and the “narrated ‘I’” (16). To make sense of the continued violence of the black person’s experience in America, the narrating I (Coates’ older self) engages in a sustained examination of the experiences of the narrated I, which is Coates’ younger self. This continual attitude of reflection is what constitutes his “struggle” (Coates 97). It is both a struggle with himself to understand his place in the American society and a struggle with the society which, it seems, has no place for him. And in the end, he notes that “it is a struggle, not because it assures you victory but because it assures you an honorable and sane life” (Coates 97).  

“How Can One Live Within A Black Body, Within A Country Lost In The Dream?” (Coates 12): Defining the Question

The key question in this autobiography is founded on Coates’ realization that his black body is prone to destruction in the American society. The question itself suggests a number of meanings. First, it could be addressing the possibility of staying alive if you are a black person in America. Secondly, it could be addressing the ways to achieve this, that is the measures that one can adopt to achieve this purpose. Thirdly, it could also be a form of lament at the futility of trying to stay alive. In the context of this book, all of the meanings are relevant, and they show the narrator’s fear(s) that the destruction or death of the black American seems inevitable.

The fear which the narrator expresses, is entrenched in his black community. Early on in the book, Coates explains that this fear is visible in the mannerisms and dressings of the black youth on the streets (14-16). It is visible in the violence of black music and in the corporal punishments which parents mete out to their children. However, these are experiences retrieved from the memories of a younger Coates and he did not originally recognize these behaviors in his black community as signs of fear. However, the older narrator tells his son, Samori:

I am afraid. I feel the fear most acutely whenever you leave me. But I was afraid long before you, and in this I was unoriginal. When I was your age the only people I knew were black, and all of them were powerfully, adamantly, dangerously afraid. I had seen this fear all my young life, though I had not always recognized it as such. (Coates 14)

A young Coates did not understand that the excessive punishment instilled by parents was driven by fear because they were trying to keep their children from ending up vulnerable on the streets or victims of police violence. Coates (the “narrating I”) is only able to identity this emotion as fear because of his own vulnerability to his son and his examination of his younger self who he poses as the “narrated I” (Smith and Watson 16).

The adult narrator is also only able to properly analyze the past by locating himself within memories of his community. In the context of this autobiography, Coates makes references to shared experiences and a shared slavery history because he is not telling his story alone.  Thus, his narrative voice takes on the role of the “ideological ‘I’” (Smith and Watson 18). Borrowing from Althusser, Smith and Watson argue that as the “ideological I”, the narrator of an autobiography is actually interpellated in a pre-existing history and ideology (76). The narrator is, therefore, not able to tell her/his story divorced of an existing historical or cultural situation. Coates deliberately uses this autobiographical style as a technique to legitimize and emphasize the importance of his story. His references to his immediate familiar situation and his community’s collective past (of fear) shows that the narration concerns a wider audience. 

He structures the autobiography as an intimate letter to his son because this narrative form allows him to draw a parallel between a younger Coates (himself) and his son. This idea is reinforced by similarities in their experiences, like the unresolved cases of Prince Jones (Coates 77) and Michael Brown (Coates 11). In the two situations, the killers were not brought to justice showing that Coates and his son have the same form of vulnerabilities. But more than their personal experiences, the unresolved cases of Brown, Jones, the recent murder of George Floyd (unfortunately dramatized for the whole American/world viewership), and the ever-growing number of African American men, who have been unjustly murdered by the police and other self-proclaimed neighborhood watchers, shows that the vulnerability of the African American is an existing condition.

More than sharing his personal experiences with his son, or warning his son, it is the desire to discuss his community’s experiences that motivates Coates’ autobiography. Borrowing from Nietzsche, Judith Butler discusses fear as a catalyst for autobiographies. She explains that someone can chose to “give an account” so as to explain past actions and absolve him/herself of guilt (Butler, “An Account” 53). According to her, the ‘I’ giving the account is mainly motivated by “fear and terror” and gives the account in order to avoid some form of punishment (Butler, “An Account” 53). Butler’s analysis of fear as a catalyst for writing autobiographies is a useful way to consider the “fear” which Coates expresses in his narrative. In his case, he is not only anxious that his son might be vulnerable to physical violence, he is also afraid that the actions and behaviors of his black community may be considered as random acts of violence by people outside his community who are unable to understand the root of their fear. By explaining how corporal punishment can emanate from love, Coates attempts to show the reader that his community is not unloving but merely conditioned by experiences of slavery and generations of unremitting hardships. Thus, his fear of unfair judgements motivates him into narrating the past.

The fear and vulnerability which Coates expresses is rooted in America’s history of slavery. He recalls this history in the statement, “my own father, who loves you, who counsels you, who slipped me money to care for you. My father was very afraid…my father who beat me as if someone might steal me away” (Coates 15). The idea that his body might be stolen is obviously a reference to Transatlantic slavery when black people were sold almost as if they were commodities like sugar, tobacco, cotton and gold (Coates 71). He critiques this inhuman act by alluding to the fact that the enslaved black people were accounted for in actual monetary terms like mere goods (Coates 101).

The narration shows that the monetary value is not the value of human life; rather, it is the value of labor which African Americans provided for the American society. It seems that the lives of the descendants of those enslaved Americans are still expendable. His discussion brings to mind Giorgio Agamben’s idea of the “homo sacer” who Agamben explains as (a person) who may be killed” (411). In line with Agamben’s discussion of the homo sacer, when you remove people’s citizenships, and they are reduced to bare life, killing those people will not be considered a crime by the state. Thus, when Coates speaks of being stolen away, it is not only a historical reference to stolen bodies that were converted to enslaved people, it is also a lamentation that those bodies are still being molested and killed without accountability.

But it is fair to argue that the citizenship which Agamben talks about was never accorded to the black person. Coates argues that from the beginning, African Americans were not included in “the people” mentioned in the Preamble of the Declaration of Independence:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men … That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government. (US 1776)

The words of the American declaration of independence, imply that equality, liberty, and fairness are available to all peoples. However, the “men” (people) referenced in the declaration does not include African Americans because they were enslaved. It did not help that those who signed this proclamation of independence were a part of the system which enslaved others, and up to 1863, black people were still treated as chattels.

Thus, from the beginning of the American society, blackness was always represented as inferior and undesirable, allowing the society to marginalize that group. In “The Fact of Blackness,” Franz Fanon shows that the existence of color prejudice was used to marginalize and dehumanize the black person.  

Understand, my dear boy, color prejudice is something I find utterly foreign…But of course, come in, sir, there is no color prejudice among us…Quite, The Negro is a man like ourselves…It is not because he is black that he is less intelligent than we are…I had a Senegalese buddy in the army who was really clever… (Fanon 65)…sin is Negro as virtue is white. (Fanon 79-80)

Fanon also argues that blackness is deliberately constructed as a negative attribute. This form of color prejudice is evident in the America which Coates describes. As he suggests, it is not possible to speak about democracy, or “a government of the people,” in a society which ab initio excluded some of its members. 

Coates tells his son that this form of prejudice against the African American, which also originates from their history of a long period of enslavement, is still in place in America: “Never forget (he says) that for 250 years black people were born into chains – whole generations followed by more generations who knew nothing but chains”(Coates 70; my parenthesis). It is as Alexander Weheliye argues, the black body is still enslaved because they are inheritors of the “hieroglyphics of the flesh” which were created by instruments used to punish slaves (144). The notion of hieroglyphics (borrowed from Egyptian culture) means to carve or engrave sacred writings on an “object.” This means that even after the slave is freed, such engraved markings “do not varnish;” rather, the bodies are “mapped” and the markings or mappings remain as reminders of the past for the bearers (Weheliye 145; Butler and Athanasiou, “The Logic of Dispossession” 128  ). In the first part of his autobiography, Coates writes about what appears to be a dualized America that shows “blacks” as the plundered (60) and “whites” as the plunderers. His narration evidences that fact that the marginalization of blacks in his society is not an accident; it is borne out of America’s history of slavery and deliberate construction of blackness as inferior. 

“How Can One Live Within A Black Body, Within A Country Lost In The Dream?” (Coates 12): Changing Perspectives About White and Black America

Coates’ prior experience of being black largely informed his understanding as a child in Baltimore. At that time, he had a monolithic view of black Americans as descendants of slaves, with black skin color. As a child, he did not have a wider perception of other groups of vulnerable people in America. However, from his time at Howard University, he started to experience shifts in his perceptions of blackness and abuse. He started to realize that black people can also represent exploitative power and that this power can be used to abuse others. 

Coates came to his new understanding of “the human spectrum” (60) mainly through his interaction with an unnamed girl who he refers to as “the tall girl with long flowing dreadlocks” (58). This is a significant turning point in his account because it is through this relationship that he acknowledges some of his own biases and ways in which these biases function to disenfranchise people other than blacks. As a younger child, he was unaware of these biases because his understanding was based on the collective system of knowing within his community. Butler explains that this is a form of dispossession where people are limited by the “social conditions of (their) emergence” (“An Account” 52). In Coates’ situation, his prior knowledge of the American society’s socioeconomic circumstances comes from growing up as a black boy in a world where it seemed that only blacks were disadvantaged and abused.

He explains his re-orientation as a form of death and re-awakening: “I slept. When she returned I was back in form…I grew up in a house drawn between love and fear. There was no room for softness. But this girl with the long dreads revealed something else – that love could be soft and understanding…love was an act of heroism” (Coates 61). Through his association with this girl, he came to a re-interpretation of love as something other than what he experienced in his childhood. As discussed in the first part of the paper, Coates’ younger self learnt about love from his community where this emotion was both rooted in violence and often expressed violently. As an older person, his association with “the tall girl” showed him that expressing love softly was equally powerful (Coates 58). It also enabled him to understand the nuances and diversities even within blackness.

Consequently, Coates started to also see whiteness, which is the symbol of power and belonging, as a construct. In the book, he explains that white groups in America are not only those who claim historical and biological whiteness. Instead, they include Catholic, Corsican, Welsh, Mennonite, Jewish peoples who have been involved in the “machinery of criminal power” (Coates 7). Although such people were once part of the disenfranchised, they have been able to achieve “whiteness” through economic and social success, as measured by the American society. Thomas Nakayama and Robert Krizek’s critical study on whiteness support his idea. They contend that:

Whatever ‘whiteness’ really means, is constituted only through the rhetoric of whiteness. There is no ‘true essence’ to ‘whiteness’; there are only historically contingent constructions of that social location (293) … the discursive frame that negotiates and reinforces white dominance in U.S. society, operates strategically…This strategic rhetoric functions to resecure the center, the place, for whites. (Nakayama and Krizek 295)

Nakayama and Krizek conclude that people chose what to be called (white or other ethnic markers) because they recognized it as useful marks of identification. Furthermore, those who assume themselves “white,” and are accorded superiority, re-enforce their “whiteness” (supposed superiority) by marginalizing others.

Although Coates explicitly mentions some socioreligious ethnic groups as the “new” whites, his narrative proposes that some socially and politically advantaged African Americans are also privileged and akin to white America. This includes African American police people who contribute to the ravaging of black people. Earlier in his narrative, he had warned his son, Samori, about the police’s random acts of brutality against black people:

The police department of your country have been endowed with the authority to destroy your body. It does not matter if the destruction is the result of an unfortunate overreaction. It does not matter if the destruction springs from a foolish policy…There is nothing uniquely evil in these destroyers…The destroyers are merely men enforcing the whims of our country. (Coates 9-10)

But his discussion of the killing of Prince Jones especially shows that the black police are part of these random killings. Although the “black police” on “black” brutality may support Coates’ earlier point that black people are accustomed to violence because of the historical violence they suffered (14). Nevertheless, in the context of Jones’ murder, the black policeman is obviously part of a system that oppresses African American peoples (especially males) in the name of law enforcement. Furthermore, Coates deliberate reference to Prince Jones’ social background could be read as further proof of the argument that some classes of blacks may have white privileges. Like the black police who derive power from the American law enforcement, the victim was privileged by his Ivey league education and background.

Nonetheless, it would appear that the narrator questions this assumption of privilege because he infers that at critical times, such as when the police are involved, all they can see is just another random black man. This means that in Jones’ case, for instance, the police who killed him may have profiled him, not as a person, but as a black person whose life is expendable. The mini narrative concerning Prince Jones’ killing is important in the book because it shows that the black body is still vulnerable even when cloaked in whiteness factors such as education. The book implies that the danger in such outward markings is that, while it enables the black person to “act” white, it limits their perceptions of their own vulnerabilities (Coates 111).

“How Can One Live Within A Black Body, Within A Country Lost in The Dream?” (Coates 12): Living in The American Dream

Ultimately, Coates’ changing perceptions cause him to question the concept of “dreaming,” especially as it has been historically used within the American context. The significance of dreaming is central to this narrative because it is multilayered. It is used as an idea that can offer someone limitless routes to a “successful” life. But Coates also argues that it has been used as an excuse to limit or exploit weaker or vulnerable groups.

Coates critiques his early understanding of dreams/dreaming, where he uses his dream of a “black race” to cope with his life as a marginalized African American (45). The younger Coates, who arrives at Howard University, constructs a dream on the basis of a fictitious “noble” black history and this is a useful way for him to reject the identity of defeated blackness that the society thrust upon him. However, through learning and constant self-examinations, he comes to realize that this dream is a form of escapism.

Coates also critiques the notion of the American Dream which is presumably the right of every American. But as has been discussed thus far, the liberty and right to life or happiness encoded in the Declaration of Independence is limited to “white America” or those with privilege who act as “white America.” He describes that America as a galaxy” as if to denote that it is foggy and far removed from reality (Coates 20). I suggest that the younger Coates refers to America as a galaxy because it is the only way he is able to understand the differences in standards of living, between the privileged “white America” that he sees on TV, and the world in which he lives. To this younger Ta-Nehisi Coates, this other world can only be a world of fantasy, something in outer space.

Because the so-called inalienable human rights are available only to those with privileges, Coates identifies it as a dream. As he describes, it is a dream in a very basic sense because it is unreal to black and disadvantaged people in America. Furthermore, he insists that the dream, which America likes to wallow in, actually rests on the backs of black Americans (Coates 11). This is obviously an allusion to the fact that the American dream was mainly built on the blood and sweat of black people. This can also be taken literarily because the cotton used as stuffing for the beddings are historically one of the products of slavery. And to him, the idea of keeping the American Dream alive is what causes white America to continue to subjugate the blacks and other marginalized people.

But ultimately, his use of dream/dreaming recalls and questions the assumption of equality and freedom for all implicit in Martin Luther King’s “I have a Dream” speech:

When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check; a check which has come back marked insufficient funds. (King, par. 4)

The words of King’s own “magnificent” speech is from 1963. Yet, it is still relevant in Coates contemporary American context because much of the hope which the speech represents remains in the realms of dreams. In the speech, King reminds the American government, and the unjust society it created, that freedom and the right to life should be for everyone, irrespective of visible differences.

But to a young Coates, the hope which King’s words represent is a type of ideal which he is unable to comprehend. This is implicit in his question: “Why were only our heroes nonviolent? How could the schools valorize men and women whose values society actively scorned? How could they send us out into the streets of Baltimore, knowing all that they were, and then speak of nonviolence?” (Coates 32). This question characterizes the thoughts of the young and inexperienced Coates; they invariably query how the idyllic words of King’s speech will help him to stay alive in a society where black men/people are frequently exploited or murdered. While he advocates for equality, he obviously wonders about the likelihood of the black community, certain classes of the black community, attaining the equality and freedom which is theirs by right. Perhaps, to the young Coates, it seemed like the non-violent form of activism was a form of tacit submission to the society’s unrelenting subjugations. It is for this reason that an older Coates contrasts the dream of non-violent activism with Malcolm X’s emphasis on, not just racial inequality, but the immediate security of the black body. He self-identifies with Malcom X because the latter’s approach represents to him a way to conquer the fear that is always a part of his life.

Similarly, in the light of this autobiography, one could argue that while Coates does not advocate for violence, he wonders how the unjust society can avoid it when it has always enforced violence on some its members. In this he echoes Fanon where the latter speaks about the inevitability of violence during decolonization. In The Wretched of the Earth, Fanon defines decolonization as:

The encounter between two congenitally antagonistic forces that in fact owe their singularity to the kind of reification secreted and nurtured by the colonial situation. Their first confrontation was colored by violence and their cohabitation – or rather the exploitation of the colonized by the colonizer – continued at the point of bayonet and under cannon fire. (2)

Even though Fanon primarily writes about a colonial situation, the circumstance he describes is akin to Coates’ America. It is a situation that was forged through violence and which may unavoidably degenerate to violence

The violence which these writers warn against is currently playing out around the world in the wake of George Floyd’s murder by a member of the American police. People who are angered by this brutal act demand for systemic change while tearing down values and symbols of oppression. Though many are predisposed to march peacefully, some others are pre-conditioned to address such heinous crimes with equitable violence. As Fanon reminds, the violent protests are exacerbated by the response of the police and public authorities which appear designed to both suppress and incite protests. It is Coates’ awareness of such potentiality for violence that causes his shift away from the idea of dreaming. He emphasizes that any form of dreaming, is not based on reality and may result in the loss of the dreamer’s body.


The purpose of this paper and the autobiography is to explore and attempt to answer Coates’ life question, “how can one live within a black body, within a country lost in the Dream?” (12). The question is symptomatic of the title of the book which implies that the author feels alienated from his world or dispossessed within the larger American world. This dispossession is not his alone, but it is characteristic of black Americans and other marginalized groups in America. Coates contends that the progress of (white) America, or those “who believe that they are white, rests on the looting of black America (6).

In the autobiography, Coates shows that the breach which is implied in the title of the book is at some level healed through his associations and learning at Howard University (his Mecca). Howard University is significant because this is where he re-claims his sense of self-interrogation. Coates structures his narrative as a letter and an autobiography to enable him both engage in personal interrogations and involve his larger community. And through the constant re-examinations, he comes to see the vulnerability of his black body as an existing condition.

At the end, the reader is not certain if Coates’ question is answered, is answerable, or if the narrative ends with a sense of futility. The suggestion is that while the author acknowledges death as inevitable, he finds solace in what he identifies as the call “to struggle” (Coates 97). This is the hope he passes on to Samori at the end. Coates explains the “struggle” as a deliberate effort to constantly examine one’s world and oneself. For him, this is the way to be in control of his vulnerable body (97).

Works Cited

Aaron, Michele. Spectatorship: The Power of Looking On. Wallflower Press, 2007.

Agamben, Giorgio. “Introduction to Homo Sacer.” The Routledge Critical and Cultural

Theory Reader, edited by Neil Badmington and Julia Thomas, Routledge, 2008, pp. 406-14.

Butler, Judith. “An Account of Oneself.” Vulnerability in Life Writing, edited by Tunji

Osinubi, University of Western Ontario, 2016, pp. 49-58.

Butler, Judith & Athanasiou, Athena “Aporetic Dispossession, or the Trouble with

Dispossession.” Vulnerability in Life Writing, edited by Tunji Osinubi, University of Western Ontario, 2016, pp. 119-29.

Butler, Judith & Athanasiou, Athena “The Logic of Dispossession and the Matter of the

Human (after the critique of metaphysics of substance).” Vulnerability in Life Writing, edited by Tunji Osinubi, University of Western Ontario, 2016, pp. 124-37.

Coates, Ta-Nehisi. Between the World and Me. Spiegel & Grau, 2015.

“Declaration of Independence: A Transcription.” National Archives and Records Administration, National Archives and Records Administration, 4 Jul. 1776,

Fanon, Frantz. “The Fact of Blackness.” The Routledge Critical and Cultural Theory Reader, edited by Neil Badmington and Julia Thomas, Routledge, 2008, pp. 63-81.

—-. The Wretched of the Earth. Grove Press, 1963.

King Jr., Martin Luther. “I have a Dream.” Stanford: The Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute, Aug. 1963,

Nakayama, Thomas & Krizek, Robert. “Whiteness: A Strategic Rhetoric.” Quarterly Journal

of Speech, vol. 81, no. 3, 1995, 291-309, doi: 10.1080/00335639509384117. Accessed 10 April 2016.

Smith, Sidonie & Watson, Julia “Autobiographical Acts.” Vulnerability in Life Writing, edited by Tunji Osinubi, University of Western Ontario, 2016, pp. 11-30.

Weheliye, Alexander. “Bare Life: The Flesh.” Vulnerability in Life Writing, edited by Tunji Osinubi, University of Western Ontario, 2016, pp. 141-47.

One Heroine’s Journey through the Dissertation

Abstract: This conceptual essay applies selected elements from Maureen Murdock’s concept of the Heroine’s Journey (Murdock 1) to characterize the doctoral program experience, focusing specifically on the dissertation process. This conceptual essay grounds a heroine’s journey in feminist pedagogy (Heinrich et al. 352-353) and highlights the often-overlooked role-negotiation process women endure as part of this cerebral undertaking. However, because little research documents the multifaceted transformations of female graduate students, this conceptual essay draws from relevant literature around women’s personal and professional development in graduate studies. Finally, this conceptual essay employs the author’s own experiences as running metaphors to highlight the personal and professional journey women experience throughout the dissertation process.

An Appeal to the [Dissertation] Adventure

My journey toward dissertation completion exemplifies an act of academic and emotional resilience many women before me have undergone in their graduate work. This sense of self-reliance and academic achievement is worth celebrating, especially in light of the negotiation processes required to sustain the extensive responsibilities that come with being a woman in a graduate program. As Cabrera notes, organizational structures continue to work against women who choose to integrate work and family. Instead, we view this integration as a lack of commitment to either career or family (232). This perceived lack of engagement can manifest as a lack of respect for and skepticism of the woman who makes every attempt to negotiate these roles and responsibilities (227).

It is important to note that despite choosing a career in education after working as a teacher’s aide in Mexico, I do not come from a family of educators. Moreover, although I pursued a doctoral degree, I do not come from a family of academics. I am unsure if I knew anyone with a doctoral degree until I entered college. Many of the women in my family opted to start families early, instead of pursuing undergraduate degrees or professional careers, a choice I could not understand, I admit. Although I possessed a career and a Master’s degree in education, a pathway into the academic world, especially for women, seemed unnatural for me to consider. My dream of becoming an “expert” at something, broadly defined, was a secret one, until I connected with other women, who humanized this dream. These women put a face to my goal and made it seem real and accessible. However, I had no figures I could turn to when I applied to my Master’s program, let alone anyone to turn to when I applied to my doctoral program. In this way, I began these cerebral journeys on my own, initially along what seemed like an uncharted path. Moreover, I would learn that the dissertation research journey was unlike any other I would ever experience, one that would raise more questions than answers, both professional ones, and personal ones. Although I felt I could manage the professional obstacles that may emerge through an extensive commitment to the research, the personal barriers that emerged highlighted my inability to rationalize work and intuition, productivity, and joy, exemplifying the taxing experience of being a female graduate student.

Without much insight into how long this journey might take, and the idea of a dissertation—let alone finishing one—far off in the distance, I embarked on a quest toward career advancement (and to pursue my dream) in late 2013 with the beginning of my doctoral program. I wrestled with the following questions throughout my dissertation research, specifically, which began in late 2016. I still find these questions to be worth addressing: how do we prepare female graduate students to maintain their research agendas at a consistent pace, and to continue full-time work potentially? Should this even be the outcome, or can we make this journey a little more flexible for the roles women must work through as they embark on this journey? Can we minimize this desire to seek control over our lives continually, and arguably masculine and desired quality (Murdock 2)? Additionally, as women, how do we relish in choices to advance our knowledge and careers, including pursuing advanced degrees and putting other life markers (i.e., children) on the backburners?  How do we begin to more positively frame these choices, whether in our minds or publicly?

Unfortunately, I am unsure whether my testimony and the questions it raised for me expose any easy answers. However, my experience highlights similar trends of transformation experienced by women graduate students. Mehta et al. (47) suggest that women must find ways to “manage” their gender in graduate programs while balancing other life obligations. This management may occur in light of persistent gender hierarchies that make it more challenging to integrate the responsibilities and roles women take on, as well as in light of the “leaking pipeline” (Moyer et al. 608; Rosli et al. 2) that exposes the lack of female representation in top-tier academic positions. The lack of female representation in academic positions may illustrate the very difficulty of managing life’s obligations in addition to scholarly research. It is integral to devote more time to examining female students’ experiences in graduate research. Moreover, it becomes particularly important to explore how academia can better support women’s “cognitive leaps” toward practitioner-researcher during this time (Ellison et al. 2; Heinrich et al. 359), in addition to supporting women’s emerging professional voices and identities.

For the remainder of this piece, in honoring the heroic achievement of completing the dissertation, I apply elements of Maureen Murdock’s concept of the Heroine’s Journey to the dissertation writing process for a female graduate student (Murdock 1). I specifically focus on the role-shaping and negotiation process of embracing both the masculine and feminine perspectives, in addition to the assistance of allies amid the proverbial “slaying” of academic demons during this cerebral journey. Much of my journey involves negotiating the efficiency and productivity valued in “patriarchal systems” that became necessary in completing my research, amid my desires, intuitions, and those parts of my life that brought me joy before beginning my dissertation (Murdock 4). That said, the villains that emerge do not just involve the completion of the dissertation, but also the process of overcoming the self-inflicting doubts and questions of value and validation that arose during this scholarly experience.  However, it is this very process of negotiation that transcends an individual experience: negotiating multiple responsibilities, roles, and lived worlds that female graduate students and women of all disciplines have and continue to endure.

First and foremost, the completion of a doctoral degree should be considered a feat in itself. It is, as Heinrich et al. argue, a heroic journey, ushering in female empowerment and emancipation amidst the figurative dragons that serve as obstacles on the route to completion of the program and the dissertation, a choice to upend the status quo of one’s lived world (352-353). These figurative dragons not only appear as programmatic obstacles but also as internal demons, manifesting as a challenged sense of self. I endeavor to highlight the significance of this journey by exposing my own internal and external dragons and demons to celebrate the heroic journey of graduate work and demonstrating the extensive personal and professional growth that women experience during this time.

Research on women graduate students continues to develop. Little research exists on this particular population from a “non-academic standpoint” (Rosli et al. 3). My uneven attempts at balancing my roles as a student/ professional/ wife and maintaining some semblance of a healthy and happy lifestyle and interacting with other humankind could not be a solitary endeavor. Therefore, I began researching the topic of women pursuing graduate degrees amid formative professional and personal journeys. To my reassurance—much like the research for my dissertation literature review—I found myself not alone in this awkward state of limbo. Women in graduate programs have and still face the difficulty of maintaining multiple roles amid their pursuit of graduate degrees. However, our enrollment and completion rate of these degrees is declining due to several factors, where the largest pool of finishers of doctoral programs exists in the education field (Bower et al. 253; Morris 146).

Moreover, little research exists around how women doctoral students come to experience their programs, while negotiating both obligations and joys of life (Heinrich et al. 353). First and foremost, we still hold onto this conception of a woman who balances a full-time position, with family, remaining independent and authentic to herself, and yet has time for some semblance of a social life or sanity-preserving physical exercise as the epitome of a woman. This conception neglects the “invisible work” mentally and emotionally required sustaining these responsibilities, not to mention with the additional graduate work (Ellison et al. 2). Our former first lady even criticized this myth, declaring: “I tell women, that whole ‘you can have it all’—nope, not at the same time; that’s a lie” (Obama). Thus, I wondered if working full-time, conducting research and recruitment, and not burning out even remained a possibility. 

As many women in graduate programs have experienced, I had a difficult time negotiating the multiple roles I incurred during this time (Rosli et al. 1). I felt guilty if I chose to spend time in the real world away from research but also felt guilt for at times shunning the world outside in favor of my dissertation (Rosli et al. 26). I attempted to negotiate my role as a woman/researcher/wife/human, trying to take my identity shifts in stride (Bower et al. 262; Webber 153). How did I get to a point where instead of celebrating my ability (or at least, my attempts) to balance my roles as woman/researcher/wife/human, I chastised my inability to push myself to exhaustive limits as a woman/researcher/wife/human/professional?

Like other early-career graduate students, I desire more than marriage and children and tend to devote a significant portion of time to my work (Rosli et al. 19). However, there exists a notion that women with children are the only women who must incur significant balancing of work, research, and family. This assumption negates the negotiation process that women without children suffer (Maher et al. 388). During this time, I also felt guilt for my latent “queen bee syndrome” that fueled my earlier presumptions of other women in my program (Mehta et al. 48). I assumed that I could finish my research much more quickly if I were not working full-time, thereby attempting to be the woman who could balance everything: full-time study, full-time work, and the rest of life. I realized that the endeavor of balancing multiple roles occurred for the majority of women graduate students and that to complete my dissertation, I would incur a period of similar personal and professional soul-searching. However, I would come to find and appreciate the allies that appeared by my side throughout this particular journey, assisting in my professional and personal growth as an emerging academic.

External supports became my warrior-allies throughout the dissertation process, assisting in combating the internal and external demons that threatened my dissertation completion. These external supports proved significant in female doctoral completion (Rosli et al. 2). They assisted in my attempts to negotiate the multifaceted personal and professional responsibilities (Moyer et al. 609). We often conceive of the research process as an utterly solitary experience, and at times, it felt that way: both lonely and isolating. However, part of recognizing the demons standing in the way of progress involved “taking others on the journey” with me, in an effort for them—and me—to better understand and combat the personal and professional obstacles I was experiencing (Ellison et al. 16). My dissertation advisor emerged not only as an ally but also as the singular female figure that helped to chart a path toward completion that initially seemed impossible.

My advisor served as an ally (and mentor) throughout the program and dissertation processes. Research documents the significant emphasis placed on the advisor-advisee relationship (Cook 20; Ruud et al. 289; Webber 161). Advisors are warrior-allies working alongside graduate students during their dissertation journey, offering “pastoral care” amidst uncharted terrain (Ellison et al. 4). Arguably, my advisor served as an external warrior through her capacity to give me enough freedom to figure issues out on my own. This freedom sometimes proved frustrating, as I initially often wanted answers right away and definitive answers on how to do something. However, my advisor also coached me through unfamiliar territories, like the coding process, where I had a minimal roadmap at best. However, the advisor-advisee relationship is only one piece of the puzzle as part of the dissertation expedition.

In some cases, the relationship women graduate students have with their advisors leaves little room for the emergence of personal issues the students experience throughout their programs or dissertations (Webber 154). This lack of dialogue can sometimes hinder the student’s capacity to tackle personal and professional demons. At times, I felt a sense of shame for letting anything deter my research trajectory, and rarely shared these personal obstacles with my advisor. My female advisor served as an example of what existed on the other side of the dissertation: my dream realized. From here, as someone combating increased guilt and self-doubt, I had to find productive ways to allow my allies to guide me through the professional and personal obstacles I faced throughout this journey.

In addition to my advisor, my spouse emerged as another warrior-ally as I navigated the demons that encroached on my scholarly journey. Despite knowing very little about the dissertation process, my spouse assisted in rationalizing and giving into the joys, intuitions, and breaks away from research (Murdock 7). Despite his position as a male ally, his role encouraged me to embrace balancing productivity and joy. However, I found that I was not earning a stable income, and financial dependence on my spouse was unsettling, where my spouse could emerge as the male in control, and my research devalued (Murdock 14). Rationalizing my cerebral work as sufficient and enough compared to my spouse’s income-earning occupation became a pervasive struggle. From here, my spouse—both emotionally and financially—served as the primary support throughout my quest to complete my dissertation, as is the case for other married women in graduate programs (Rosli et al. 27). His motivation rarely wavered while experiencing the journey alongside me, despite possessing minimal knowledge of the dissertation process, particularly from a female perspective. Again, although my mentors proved integral mainly in light of the external obstacles I encountered, the personal journey against my internal demons felt solitary and beckoned a sense of self-reliance I continuously visited and revisited in the hopes of finishing my research.

As I began my studies, I vowed to finish by my 30th birthday (this did not happen—but I was close), so as not to delay the reaping of financial fruits a doctorate would hopefully bestow on me upon completion. I was able to keep a full-time job and other side jobs when I began my dissertation research. However, as my research took shape, my career began to fade increasingly into the background, diminishing my ability to maintain full-time work. My assumption that a doctoral degree would serve as a sure way to ensure increased earning potential in education inspired my pursuit (Maher et al. 386). However, I was unprepared for the possibility of what seemed like sacrificing my financial self-reliance in abandoning my full-time career to embrace my research. Although my doctoral program reflected the increase of women in graduate work, the rise in representation neglected another underlying, harrowing reality: the significant amount of time it takes for women to earn a graduate degree (Maher et al. 386; Rosli et al. 2). From here, maintaining full-time work and financial independence might not be possible.

Therefore, financial stability served as a significant motivator in the pursuit and completion of my doctorate and as something valuable to me as an independent female graduate student. Therefore, I could not fathom becoming a graduate student living on my spouse’s salary, which felt like playing right into the patriarchal structure of a woman’s dependence on a man (Murdock 14). Accepting financial support became one of the principal tests of will throughout my dissertation research. I found it unsettling that I had relinquished full-time (paid) work for full-time (unpaid) research, continually wondering whether this was an esteemed choice. I could not negotiate to accept financial support to eventually—hopefully—gain future financial stability. Like other female graduate students, financial support, and employability top the list of concerns during postgraduate studies (Moyer et al. 611; Ruud et al. 301).

On the one hand, I felt I was holding myself financially dependent upon my spouse’s salary to conduct research; no longer was I the independent, self-sufficient teacher-researcher from year’s past. Instead, I felt like I was riding on the earnings and allegedly more challenging work that my spouse exhibited each day so that I could complete an advanced degree. I wondered if an advanced degree was worth it, as there was a chance that this scholarly advancement might not pay off in my career in the long run (Cabrera 220).

Thus, this disruption to my career in favor of full-time research illustrated another demon to negotiate. Because I chose full-time research, without negotiating a full-time job besides, I realized I was unprepared for this negotiation process. I rationalized that graduate work signified an intellectual challenge and was thus worth my time. Without acknowledging the balance and subsequent authenticity, I would eventually crave my professional work (Cabrera 221). Career disruptions in pursuit of work that created both balance and authenticity illustrate a documented career progression for women my age—however, progress toward these elements that graduate work might interrupt.

In this way, I had become the woman I spent years despising: the full-time graduate student who—in my inexperienced mind—was not really “working.” These were the women I chastised at the beginning of my doctoral studies for not having full-time jobs: why are they not working outside the program? I would be able to finish my research in a second if I didn’t have a real job, I considered, without knowing or acknowledging neither the personal stories of these women nor the often disjointed nature of women’s careers (Cabrera 219). The tides had since turned. As Moyer et al. note, women tend to experience more career disruptions than men in light of having to integrate and maintain multiple obligations within and outside of work (609). Because I had transitioned into a full-time graduate student, in my mind, I took the seemingly effortless way out. I spent the last nine months in front of a computer, or book, just with my thoughts in the clouds. Additionally, because I was not working full-time while completing my dissertation, my research—to me—seemed not rightfully earned. Wrestling with a career disruption—and whether this had been the best choice—gave way to the most towering demon I had to overcome: self-doubt.

Self-doubt served as the most significant and most insurmountable demon throughout my research process. I doubted my choice of research over my career, my ability to finish the dissertation, and whether I belonged among the ranks of academia. These doubts had been bubbling below the surface for some time but took hold during the dissertation process, especially. This doubt of ability and belonging emerged irrespective of the lack of representation of women in higher academic posts (Mehta et al. 38-41; Moyer et al. 608; Rosli et al. 2). Like other women, I found self- doubt over my ability to earn the degree as one of the primary obstacles toward completion (Maher et al. 391). Even though I spent most of my waking moments on my research, it felt like there were times I questioned whether the research would ever finish. Not only did I feel anxious at the possibility of entering academia—the very path that inspired my decision to pursue this work in the first place.  I also felt anxious and out-of-place in social situations as a result of spending large amounts of time alone as part of my research (Bower et al. 261; Moyer et al. 609).

From here, as I spent much of my time engulfed in research, I spent significant time alone, creating prime breeding grounds for increased levels of self-doubt and anxiousness amidst what felt like a solitary endeavor (Webber 154). When I would meet people out in the real world, and I could feel the uncomfortable question surfacing, the “so what do you do?” question. I would scan the room for an escape route before succumbing with a sigh to the inevitable response: “I’m a graduate student,” awaiting the other human’s subsequent look of pity and reluctance to further engage in conversation. I perceived my nebulous role in academia (sort of, but not quite in academia) as less-than and unapproachable, invariably separating myself from the kind of work I could effortlessly discuss at dinner parties. To some, I spend most of my time in front of a computer, a book, or with my head floating in the clouds. This assertion, it turned out, was relatively accurate. I began only to fabricate a sense of comfort when forced to interact with actual humans. Some women find graduate work as affirming, while others experience a loss of self while negotiating the internal and external dragons along the way (Heinrich et al. 353). I could not yet decide whether my pursuit of a doctorate was affirming, or whether what I lost in professional experience and human interaction outweighed this achievement.

A Researcher Transformed

If it was not immediately apparent: I did finish my dissertation in 2019, thus highlighting my victory over the demons that threatened my progress. However, like most graduate students—women especially, who must integrate and balance multiple roles and obligations in addition to research—this proved no easy feat (Rosli et al. 3). As most graduate students understand, I would imagine, I felt unprepared for the possibility of maintaining a consistent progression in my research and working full-time, in this case, at a high-needs high school as the sole member of a foreign language department. I assumed I could not successfully adhere to both substantial obligations.

On a personal note, my emerging research aided my ability to understand the broader political and discursive local and federal policies that once angered me deeply as a practicing teacher in Chicago. Those that reduced and scrutinized my work as an educator, as well as systems that shaped a collective understanding of what it means to be a teacher. I felt increasingly at peace, knowing that it was not just me who had been experiencing efforts to minimize and narrow teachers’ work. Therefore, I felt my research was both critical and significant—despite its place within the “academic kitchen” of education (Morris 146). Not only for me, but also for current and former practitioners like me, who could recognize dubious deregulation efforts resulting in technical frameworks for teaching and learning, but could not name the sources from where these efforts or policies emerged (Lipman 4).

However, the dissertation process—and its subsequent demons—halted that little sense of peace. Although completing a dissertation illustrates a crucial scholarly achievement, I realized the journey toward its completion proved just as formative personally as professionally. As a young and fiercely independent woman who had been on her own since the age of eighteen, I was struck by the realization that I might have to choose between my research and paid full-time work as I wrapped up the IRB process—a series of surprising ebbs and flows in itself.

Moreover, I knew myself; and I knew the level of commitment I wanted to exhibit in my teaching practice (i.e., the level of commitment I knew my students deserved). Truthfully, I have always had trouble finding balance in my life. If I stayed in the classroom, my teaching duties would come first, always, thus allowing my research, recruitment, and writing to take back seats. One day away from my research might turn into two, and two might become four, where I would spend a week, a month, or a few months making minimal progress. Let me be frank: my teaching environment would demand a physically, mentally, and emotionally present individual for every moment of the school year, and then some, because what teacher’s work ends when the dismissal bell rings? Although I spent years in my program balancing full-time work, coursework, emerging research, and other side jobs, I was unsure how long I could attempt this kind of balancing act. In the end, I chose my research.

Although I should be profoundly grateful that I had the freedom to make this choice, I still felt that I had not rightfully earned my research accomplishment, because I did not negotiate work in the research world, and work in the “real” world. I operated under the premise that “one cannot be a good researcher unless one devotes all energy and time to [research] work…” (Moyer et al. 618), always “making use of” every bit of free time to write, transcribe, code, or research and feeling guilty if I chose not to occupy free minutes with research, writing, or dissertation-related work (Webber 157). As said, this sense of guilt emerged as a test of my will to complete the dissertation. It represented the “invisible work” that many graduate students must endure as part of the research process (Ellison et al. 2). It is this internal transformation that often goes unnoticed but is no less significant during this journey.

Finally, as Murdock notes, my journey through the doctoral program and the dissertation process, as well as the feelings of guilt and shame that emerged in light of these academic obstacles, reflect a journey toward “validation from patriarchal systems” of efficiency and productivity. My journey highlights the immense negotiation processes women endure not just in academia, but also in all sectors and walks of life (Murdock 4). Instead of chastising or self-criticizing our career interruptions or taking to heart the perceptions of women with graduate degrees, collectively, we must re-envision the female graduate experience as an enlightening transformation, both personally and professionally (Bower et al. 261). How do we balance the efficient and logical, with our health, dreams, and intuition?” (Murdock 7). Examining this process a year later, I have begun to reclaim writing – both for leisurely and academic purposes – as a source of joy, representing future scholarly and creative journeys.

Works Cited

Bower, Beverly, et al. “‘Ain’t I a Woman, Too?’ Tracing the Experiences of African American Women in Graduate School.” The Journal of Negro Education, vol. 72, no. 3, 2003, pp. 252-268.

Cabrera, Elizabeth. “Opting Out and Opting In: Understanding the Complexities of Women’s Career Transitions.” Career Development International, vol. 12, no. 3, 2007, pp. 218-237.

Cook, Sarah. “Why Do Almost Half of Doctoral Students Fail?” Women in Higher Education, vol. 21, no. 3, 2012, p. 20.

Ellison, Elizabeth, et al. “Mapping the Emotional Journey of the Doctoral ‘Hero’: Challenges Faced and Breakthroughs Made by Creative Arts and Humanities Candidates.” Arts and Humanities in Higher Education, vol. 1, no. 1, 2019, pp. 1-23.

Heinrich, Kathleen, et al. “Mid-Life Women Doctoral Students Rediscover ‘Voice’ in a Community of Scholarly Caring.” Journal of Professional Nursing, vol. 13, no. 6, 1997, pp. 352-264.

Lipman, Pauline. The New Political Economy of Urban Education: Neoliberalism, Race, and the Right to the City. Routledge, 2011.

Maher, Michelle, et al. “Degree Progress of Women Doctoral Students: Factors that Constrain, Facilitate, and Differentiate.” The Review of Higher Education, vol. 27, no. 3, 2004, pp. 385-408.

Mehta, Clare, et al. “Perceived Advantages and Disadvantages of Being a Female Graduate Student in the US and the UK.” Gender and Education, vol. 25, no. 1, 2012, pp. 37-55.

Morris, Libby. “Women in Higher Education: Access, Success, and the Future.” Innovation in Higher Education, vol. 36, no. 1, April 2011, pp. 145-147.

Moyer, Anne, et al. “Challenges Facing Female Doctoral Students and Recent Graduates.” Psychology of Women Quarterly, vol. 23, no. 1, 1999, pp. 607-630.

Murdock, Maureen. The Heroine’s Journey. Shambhala Publications, 1990.

Obama, Michelle. “Becoming.” Book Tour, 2018 December 1, Barclays Center, Brooklyn, NY.

Rosli, Rosalina, et al. “A Critical Dialectical Pluralistic Examination of the Lived Experiences of Select Women Doctoral Students.” The Qualitative Report, vol. 19, no. 3, 2014, pp. 1-35.

Ruud, Collin, et al. “Tipping Points: Doctoral Students and Consideration of Departure.” Journal of College Student Retention: Research, Theory & Practice, vol. 20, no. 3, 2016, pp. 286-307.

Webber, Louise. “Supporting Professional Doctorate Women Students Through Identity Change and Turbulent Times: Who Cares?” Pastoral Care in Education, vol. 35, no. 3, 2017, pp. 152-165.

The Exploitation and Marginalization of Contingent and Adjunct Labor

Abstract: The present situation within many institutions within higher education is that a bulk of the faculty who are teaching within the Academy are contingent faculty, or non-tenured faculty. The focus of the following paper is exploring the history, rise, and oppression of adjunct and contingent faculty. Adjunct faculty tend to be used as the bulk of the academic teaching workforce. These individuals often face challenges inside and outside of the academy that those who have tenure do not. Additionally, adjunct faculty are more likely to be individuals with marginalized identities. I posit that the trend of utilizing a base of adjuncts impedes social justice and illustrate that the present status of adjunct and contingent faculty is the result of an oppressed and exploited workforce that cannot fully participate within the educational structure. As a result, not only are the outcomes for the livelihoods of adjunct faculty impacted, but, the outcomes of the students that higher education at large seeks to serve


The present situation within many institutions within higher education is that a bulk of the faculty who are teaching within the academy are contingent faculty or non-tenured faculty. The following paper focuses on exploring the history, rise, and oppression of adjunct and contingent faculty. It is critical to note that while the paper does highlight contingent and adjunct faculty, adjunct faculty who are part-time and tend to be more at-risk for that reason, a particular focus is placed upon their contributions. As will be expressed, adjunct faculty tend to be used as the bulk of the academic teaching workforce. These individuals often face challenges inside and outside of the academy that those who have tenure do not.

Additionally, adjunct faculty are more likely to be individuals with marginalized identities. I posit that the trend of utilizing a base of adjuncts impedes social justice, defined as, “[The] full and equal participation of all groups in a society that is mutually shaped to meet their needs. Social justice includes a vision of society that is equitable, and all members are physically and psychologically safe and secure” (Bell 21). I illustrate that the present status of adjunct and contingent faculty is the result of an oppressed and exploited workforce that cannot fully participate within the educational structure. As a result, not only are the outcomes for the livelihoods of adjunct faculty impacted but, the outcomes of the students that higher education at large seeks to serve. 

What Are Adjunct and Contingent Faculty?

To understand who and what adjunct and contingent faculty are, we must explore and express who and what they are not. Within the higher education structure, there are numerous hierarchical titles that determine what rank someone has and how long they have been teaching. For clarity and keeping the subject focused, only two forms of faculty will be discussed.

The first and most common narrative to those who are not intimately involved with higher education is the full-time, tenured, or tenure-track (TT) faculty. According to the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), tenured or TT refers to individuals who have an “indefinite appointment” and are hired with the intention of permanence within the institution (AAUP par. 1). The notion of permanence also protects the academic freedom of tenured faculty and provides several benefits and rights to those holding such positions. Childress identifies the following as such benefits: developing curriculum, publishing research, financial access to and institutional support of professional memberships, access to research equipment, taking a sabbatical, and a salary (based upon discipline and rank) that supports their livelihoods (00:42:20- 00:43:10). The wage differential is interrogated as a part of the exploitation section of this paper.

The second form of what is commonly referred to as non-tenure-track (NTT) faculty are contingent faculty. Contingent faculty can be full or part-time, and for the moment, I am explicitly focusing on full-time. The AAUP’s 2014 report on “Contingent Appointments and the Academic Profession” defines contingent faculty as “both part-and full-time faculty who are appointed off the tenure track…The term includes adjuncts, who are generally compensated on a per-course or hourly basis, as well as full-time non-tenure-track faculty who receive a salary” (par. 7).

Therefore, some are full-time and salaried without the benefits of tenure and those who are part-time and receive stipends or hourly compensation within the contingent facet of the professoriate. Childress notes that NTT faculty may not have the ability to set curriculum or syllabus in their courses, must choose to teach or do research and are often not permitted to do both, and are not often provided financial and/or administrative support for professional development, conference travel, professional memberships, or publications (00:43:30). While each institution may approach these items differently, it is important to highlight distinct discrepancies between TT and NTT faculty.

Part-time faculty can be contingent or adjunct. Childress defines adjunct as “something joined or added to another thing but not essentially a part of it,” (00:41:46-00:47:00). I would also like to add the definition of ‘contingent,’ meaning “subject to chance; occurring or existing only (certain circumstances) are the case” (“Contingent”). The definitions resonate as they express quite clearly the theme of adjunct and contingent faculty in the academy.

A challenge in the research and exploration of the inequities faced by many adjuncts is that adjuncts and contingent faculty may often be put together as a group and cannot be separated for the sake of policy discussions. Adjuncts and contingent faculty may also include those who are graduate students teaching undergraduate coursework, those who teach a full-time course load but are still considered part-time, those who work full-time employment elsewhere, and are teaching a few classes part-time, and the list goes on and expands. Due to the breadth of the definition, the present discourse focuses on those adjunct and contingent faculty who seek employment within the academy and would prefer to be full-time and have the option for tenure if available to them.

Who are Adjunct and Contingent Faculty?

As before, to understand who adjunct and contingent faculty are, one must understand who occupies full-time TT and tenure roles. The following data points do shift depending on the type of institution, discipline area, and focus on research; therefore, I will only be focusing on overall numbers or all Carnegie classifications. According to the overall 2014 Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) data, Myers cited the professoriate is overwhelmingly white, averaging about 65% for TT and 79% for tenured faculty ( Furthermore, the professoriate is overwhelmingly male, averaging 64% and 79%, respectively. People of color are very lowly represented in TT and tenure positions, averaging less than 10% in both categories. It is important to note that this can vary by institution type and Carnegie classification; for instance, Asians may exceed 10%, such as in the case of TT faculty on ‘Very-high-activity research universities,’ which places this demographic at 15%. Similarly, Black TT faculty will see an increase from 6% (all classification numbers) to 10% in the case of Diverse-field baccalaureate colleges. That is likely due to the location of these institutions in that category (Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education).

According to the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) in Higher Education of the 10.4% of faculty positions held by underrepresented groups in 20071, 7.6% were contingent, resulting in 73% of these faculty holding positions exploitative in nature (13). The exploitative nature of contingent faculty work will be discussed shortly. The demographics of adjunct and contingent faculty also remain overwhelmingly white; however, there are significantly more Latinx, Black, Native American, Asian, and other race contingent faculty than TT and tenured. The recognition that faculty who are not TT or tenured overwhelmingly are representative of individuals of color is critical to the discussion of who is an adjunct and contingent faculty member. Finally, is it paramount to acknowledge that contingent faculty are also overwhelmingly women. The TIAA Institute’s 2016 report that revealed that women held 56% of part-time adjunct positions and that they were less likely to keep full-time appointments when compared to men. (4). Citing IPEDS 2013 data, TIAA’s 2016 report also noted that women held 45.2% of full-time faculty roles compared to 54.8% of men (3). Some progress has likely been made since the 2013 data represented in the study; thus far, it appears that women are still significantly behind compared to men in promotion and pay in the academy.

The History and Rise of Contingent and Adjunct Labor

Adjunct faculty in so far as part-time faculty work has been around for quite some time, and some academics are traced to when women could not become full professors. Instead, the wives of TT faculty would take on these part-time roles that allowed them to teach. Fredrickson cites the work of Historian Eileen Schell who wrote Gypsy Academics and Mother-Teachers: Gender, Contingent Labor, and Writing Instruction that at one time, these adjunct roles were referred to as ‘the housewives of higher education’ (par. 9). 

Later in United States history, the rise of contingent faculty mirrors the growth and explosion of higher education. Thelin described the space between 1945-1970 as the period when colleges and universities began to prosper (311). Much of this can be attributed to the GI. Bill of 1944, which was awarded to veterans as an incentive to receive post-secondary education and retool for the workforce (Thelin 263-264). As a result of the dramatic increases in enrollment during this “Golden Era” of higher education, institutions found themselves struggling to keep up with the demand for courses using the TT faculty on staff. To accommodate the faculty’s need to teach the courses, there was a slow rise of adjunct and contingent faculty added to the rosters for teaching (Thelin 311-312).

AAUP calls the years of 1979 to 1999 explicitly as when “student enrollment in degree-granting institutions grew by 34 percent. During that time, the number of bachelor’s degrees conferred increased by 31 percent, master’s degrees by 41 percent, and doctoral degrees by 35 percent” (par. 17). Once again, the explosive growth of higher education during this time meant that institutions needed to expand staffing to accommodate the need. However, rather than higher full-time tenured and TT faculty, institutions looked to adjunct and contingent faculty to fill these roles. Thelin speaks to this challenge as well when he describes how the individual faculty contract would serve to abate some of the challenges related to faculty availability and teaching loads (311).

Other critical components of history that aided in the rise of the contingent faculty were the lessening of federal government support to public institution budgets in the 1980s, state budgets having to eventually shoulder a significant portion of those budgets in the 1990s, and a shift to a focus on completion over-enrollment in the 2000s and 2010s. As an economic measure, adjunct and contingent faculty did allow institutions to save money as they did not cover some of the benefits described earlier, such as professional development and staples such as insurance.

Within the academy, policy changes have resulted in a decrease of available TT positions and the retirement of those who presently hold tenured positions. Wyatt illustrates the challenges posed by the removal of the mandatory retirement age in 1994. The policy resulted in the overall rate of professors who had typically retired at 70 from 100% to 33% (par.  4). Bombardieri’s 2006 article on the ‘graying’ of the academy further demonstrates this challenge when 9.2% of Harvard University’s full-time faculty of the Arts and Sciences were over the age of 70 teaching. In contrast, in 1992 there were none (par. 4). Institutions have attempted to mitigate this challenge in recent years by providing incentive packages or attempting to slowly decrease their academic teaching load, but, this only promotes resentment within faculty who are still using their teaching as their livelihood (Wyatt par. 14). For some of these faculty, the circumstances serve to promulgate a belief that institutions are trying to undermine tenured positions that faculty hold. 

The situation regarding contingent faculty is still growing even when the economy is strong, and enrollment meets or exceeds the needs of institutions. Achieving the Dream (ATD), a non-profit organization focused on reform within higher education, has also examined the challenges of adjunct and contingent faculty through the lens of equity and student success. Using 2014 IPEDS data, ATD highlights the number of filled instructional positions, 70% NTT, 17% were full-time instructors, 13% were graduate teaching assistants, and 41% were part-time instructional staff (par. 2). The trend continues, such that three out of four new faculty positions are appointed at NTT status. Additionally, more than half of all faculty appointments are part-time, resulting in adjuncts who may need to commute to several institutions and have little time for grading and student contact (Hurlburt and McGarrah 1). The impact on students as a result of these factors will be investigated later in the paper.

Considering the role of women in the academy, it has already been discussed how women were systemically prevented from entering the faculty role. Thelin notes that women were not permitted to enter higher education in the Colonial period of the United States (31). During the 1800s, women were slowly being integrated into some schools like Oberlin College and were permitted to enter particular fields of study (Thelin 84). However, full integration– though not without restrictions– did not occur until the 1930s and beyond (Thelin 212). Therefore, women entered the world of the academy with similar rights of participation as men much later. When they did, more women tended to enter the fields of the Arts and Humanities over STEM fields (Ritchie 540). The American Academy of Arts and Sciences completed a study in 2014 that revealed some key trends, such as half the faculty being women and also overrepresented as contingent or adjunct faculty (White et al. 15).

The depreciation of the Arts and Humanities is an on-going debate that began during the 1970s and 1980s at the advent and recognition of feminist studies and other programs focused on marginalized groups. Bianco cites the late Harvard professor Barbara Johnson’s book The Feminist Difference, which illustrates how the devaluation of the Humanities is an affront to women in the academy:

[J]ust at the moment when women (and minorities) begin to have genuine power in the university, American culture responds by acting as though the university itself is of dubious value. The drain of resources away from the humanities (where women have more power) to the sciences (where women still have less power) has been rationalized in other ways. Still, it seems to me that sexual politics is central to this trend. (par. 3)

By recognizing where the parallels of history and contemporary are drawn, a stronger understanding of the academy’s present status can be found. Additionally, one can more readily recognize where oppression originated to understand how it manifests contemporarily.

The Exploitation and Marginalization of Contingent and Adjunct Labor

Before delving into the ways that adjunct and contingent faculty are oppressed and exploited, I want to provide some working understanding of oppression. To do this, I refer to Iris Marion Young’s “Five Faces of Oppression.” Young describes how a group needs only to experience one of the five forms of oppression forms to be considered oppressed. These are exploitation, powerlessness, marginalization, cultural imperialism, and violence. She articulates that “applying these criteria to groups allows for comparing oppressions without reducing them to a common essence or claiming one is more fundamental than another” (Young 64). I find these five criteria useful in defining oppression as it can often be a nebulous concept for people.

The first of these that I would like to express is the exploitation adjunct and contingent faculty face. Iris Marion Young describes the act of exploitation as social processes that produce unequal distributions (48).  These social structures only allow some people to reap the rewards of the work, and unequal allocation of benefits exists. In this instance, the use of labor to further the capitalist ventures that higher education has undertaken for the sake of wage increases to administrators and nicer facilities (Stenerson et al. par. 1; AAUP par. 20; Fredrickson par. 14). Further illustrating this point, one example highlights Florida Atlantic University awarding a 10% raise to administrators, including the president, during a hiring freeze and budget cuts in 2009 (Fredrickson par. 16).

Adjunct and contingent faculty are, on average, paid about $2-3,500 per course, compared to the average full professor salary of $120,000 (Childress 00:47:00). Depending on the tuition of the institution, it may seem all the more egregious and exploitative to pay adjunct faculty, many of whom hold master’s and doctoral degrees, such a penance. One adjunct share their experience by highlighting that they calculated their adjunct pay to be about “$65 per student per semester, adding up to the princely sum of $2,000, noting that ‘each student paid $45,000 in tuition and took about 4 classes a semester…. I think their parents would be rather upset to learn that only $65 of the $45,000 went to pay one professor” (Fredrickson par. 17). 

Inequalities in pay are also found within these marginalized groups. So, for an adjunct who is a white man, data supports that he will likely make more money.  The National Education Association released a study that utilized IPEDs data to illustrate that women’s salaries are between 80% (public institutions) and 78% (private institutions) of men’s salaries.2 Considering that contingent and adjunct faculty are already making a much smaller portion of TT and tenured faculty salaries, this discrepancy can mean even less money for these individuals. The pay inequality is further complicated through the lens of race. While this data is not focused specifically on higher education, it is clear that education is not impervious to issues like the glass ceiling. The Institute for Women’s Policy and Research illustrates clearly that women of all major racial and ethnic groups make less than the men of that group, and all groups earn less than white men (para. 6). Therefore, if most contingent and adjunct faculty are women, they earn less money while women of color are earning significantly less.3

Furthermore, individuals classified as adjunct or contingent may be teaching a full-time course load of overload but may still be listed as part-time (AAUP par. 7). Of course, this does not consider that individuals may teach at multiple institutions and thus have full-time loads at multiple institutions. Douglas-Gabriel describes the plight of an adjunct who taught 22 courses in one semester to make ends meet (par. 22). While this may be more of an extreme example, it does not negate the struggle that adjuncts are facing today. The rewards of insurance, protection of academic freedom, job security, etc. are not awarded to adjunct and contingent faculty in the same way that they are to TT and tenured faculty (Childress 00:47:30; AAUP par. 60).

Young further portrays the exploitation of women and people of color as being a transfer of energy. The energy that goes to those in power is a result of the work that is completed for those in power (Young 50). In this instance, contingent faculty are at the mercy of their institutions and also TT and tenured faculty who set the curriculum, govern the institutions, coordinate faculty senates, determine course scheduling and assignment, etc. It is in these ways, among others, that contingent and adjunct faculty are exploited. The systemic exploitation is further compounded when one considers that the majority of the individuals who hold these positions are people of color and women. Therefore, groups that are already historically oppressed further being oppressed through the academy.

It is important to note that there is a subset of adjunct and contingent faculty who have other forms of employment. Also, those who do not desire to work full-time in the academy, may not be impacted to this degree by the lack of TT and tenure positions available to them. However, as AAUP describes, the majority of faculty working in contingent positions do not have careers outside of the academy and rely on teaching as their main form of income and goal for employment (par. 22)

Young describes marginalization as the process of barring a group of people from meaningful participation in society. Marginalization results in the group being dispossessed and potentially annihilated (Young 53). In this instance, I am articulating that it is through the nature that adjuncts and contingent faculty may need to “depend on bureaucratic institutions for support and services” that they are oppressed (Young 54). The  education systems dependancy on adjunct labor provides a part of teaching in higher education results once again in the oppression of adjuncts. In the case of class assignment, the dependency is that the institution will not cancel the class(es) that one has been assigned last minute, or, that a TT or tenured faculty will not ‘bump’ the adjunct from their assignment (Fredrickson par. 10).

The condition of many adjuncts receiving low wages, not receiving health care benefits, etc. results in a reliance on social services for making ends meet. Frederickson describes doctoral candidates and adjuncts living out of their cars, on food stamps, etc. (par. 11). The American Community Survey indicated that 31% of part-time faculty live near or below the federal poverty line, averaging around $14K for one person and up to 27K for a family of four (Fredrickson par. 12; Health and Human Services Department4 par. 12).

Dependency can also manifest in other ways. Fredrickson poses an important argument that illustrates why dependency in the case of adjunct and contingent faculty is problematic.

[N]o job security, precarious financial situations, and weak institutional support, adjunct professors may lack the independence4 And status they need to challenge students by presenting unpopular positions, critiquing commonly accepted ideas, or even giving out poor grades. Academic freedom doesn’t mean much in these circumstances. And while we tend to see academic freedom as protection for provocative scholarship, it also performs the even more important function of facilitating discussion and debate in the classroom. (par. 29)

Furthermore, an important element of marginalization is to note that having access to food, shelter, and for our purposes, independence, does not preclude one from the condition of being marginalized (Young 55). Any structure that closes a group out of social cooperation and participation results in that group being marginalized. For adjuncts and contingent faculty, getting closed out of participating fully within the structure of higher education because they do not have access to the same means of production (i.e., participation in governance, salary, benefits, professional development) as TT and tenured faculty (AAUP par. 31). Additionally, Ritchie describes that in addition to the challenges mentioned above adjunct faculty face, they are also the product of and are impacted by the attacks on the system of tenure, major shifts in academic employment trends, conservative attacks on, and downsizing of higher education (537). Once again, parallels can be drawn regarding who is an adjunct, people of color and women, and marginalized individuals.

Historically and contemporarily, women and people of color remain marginalized. The continuation of that mechanism within the academy and outside of it is seen in hiring and advancement. 

Student Outcomes

Continuing with the concept of exploitation and money, it is important to note that contingent faculty and adjuncts typically are those who are teaching the bulk of general education, lower-level undergraduate and community college courses over TT and tenured faculty (AAUP par. 2). Fredrickson summarizes what is inherently problematic about this set up in the following paragraph,  

What makes the situation worse is that adjuncts are often disproportionately assigned the courses filled with the students who need the most assistance, such as introductory courses, freshman-writing classes, or remedial education. Incoming students often need basic grammar and composition skills, which requires the kind of intensive hands-on teaching that is difficult for a part-timer with full-time teaching hours and insufficient support to provide. (par. 28)

These points are critical as the purpose of higher education is, at least to most, to educate. Therefore, if there is a process or practice that is inhibiting in whole or in part that process of effective education and meaningful relationships, then it should be addressed. Childress addresses this concern as well by highlighting that adjunct faculty can be excellent educators. However, their situation and positionality mean that they may not have space and capacity to provide mentorship, office hours, the time between class for questions, voice, and advocacy in scholarship, etc. (00:43:10).

Unfortunately, the data also supports that undergraduate courses taught by adjuncts may not have the same level of outcomes as those taught by full-time faculty. For instance, Spangler referred to statistics that were gathered from reading and writing tests provided at Los Angeles Valley College (par. 1). The study ultimately showed that students who had a full-time instructor had better course outcomes over adjunct faculty. Another study by Mueller et al. examined the outcomes in an online classroom examined 396 sections of a first-year experience course that is required. In this instance, full-time faculty are required to have office hours and work a standard schedule where they work in a collegial manner with their peers. Overall, the results showed that students who had a full-time faculty member online were more likely to complete the course successfully and were less likely to withdraw. Furthermore, full-time faculty had higher mean course grades and thus were more likely to facilitate persistence from one term to the next (par. 15).

These outcomes are well documented. While they are unfortunate because of what they mean for adjunct faculty, they illustrate a larger problem with moving to a robust base of adjunct and contingent faculty. It hurts the adjuncts and contingent faculty as described above, but it is also harmful to the students they seek to serve. The data supports that TT and tenure track faculty spend about 50-100% more time per credit hour on instruction than part-time faculty. The AAUP also notes that because there are less TT and tenured faculty, responsibilities must be shared with contingent faculty that results in less time for TT and tenured faculty to spend with students (par. 33-35). Moreover, the lack of resources and professional support for adjunct faculty has profound impacts on students. These impacts can be described as “diminished opportunity to reach beyond the limits of the course outline and the classroom, with their instructor’s support, to encounter a passion for scholarship and freedom of inquiry” (AAUP par. 27). 

The final impact that I want to address regarding students is the harm potentially caused to transfer. Through the Delphi Project on the Changing Faculty and Student Success, Kezar and Maxey noted that the challenges that adjunct face, as described above, impact their transfer outcomes. For instance, students were more likely to transfer from a 2- year school to a 4-year school if they had a majority of full-time faculty for their educational experiences (Kezar and Maxey 1). Students were also more likely to major in a discipline area when they took a course from a full-time faculty member (Kezar and Maxey 1). Given that contingent and adjunct faculty are the majority of faculty appointments.  Two-thirds of faculty appointments in a community college setting are part-time, that all the more impacts those students who attend these institutions (Stenerson et al. par. 6). Data from the Community College Research Center (CCRC) notes that 50% of the nation’s undergraduate students who are enrolled in and start with community colleges are generally those seeking to get a head start on four-year coursework, adult learners, Pell Grant eligible individuals, and those of marginalized identity group backgrounds (par. 2-3).


Adjunct and contingent faculty have positive uses for colleges and universities. For instance, they can bring in industry experts who are working in niche or specialty areas. These roles may not warrant or require a full-time TT or tenured role. Yet, the institution would offer a course that provides this niche area of insight to students (AAUP par. 49; Stenerson et al. par. 10). In theory, adjunct and contingent faculty also serves to provide an economic boon to institutions as they are not as costly as TT or tenured faculty (AAUP par. 79). However, data also shows, according to AAUP, that the savings that are being incurred by not adequately paying adjuncts are going to areas of administration and student-services staff such as recruitment, admissions, counseling, student organizations, and athletics. In many cases, these shifts do not result in net savings but result in a stagnation of institutional budgets (AAUP par. 85).

Therefore, while there are certainly positives to institutions that utilized contingent and adjunct faculty, it is also clear that there are more negatives to relying on them to provide the bulk of instruction within an educational system.

While I do not see the use of adjuncts and contingent faculty dramatically decreasing anytime soon, I posit that the current status of these individuals in higher education must be examined to avoid a larger crisis. The AAUP provides several best practices, including integrating TT and tenured faculty with adjunct and contingent faculty (par. 50-51). Often, these groups are never in a space to meet and talk about curriculum changes, discipline-related challenges, current events, etc. Opening the opportunity for these groups to band together will also allow for more meaningful conversations about how to advocate to the administration for improved conditions for adjuncts. Peer reviews would allow groups to build rapport with one another and ensure that the curriculum meets the institutions’ desired standards. Having shared governance to the institutions such as through faculty senates would allow for adjunct faculty to have an official voice in the institution.

Lastly, and most importantly, in my opinion of these suggestions, the number of TT track positions should be increased for those who are contingent and adjunct to apply and that job security and benefits should be provided. Regarding TT positions, the AAUP recommends that those are contingent and full-time could be ‘legacies” in rather than having to bear the cost of transitioning into these roles. Regarding benefits, they recommend the following:

Job security and due process protections;

The full range of faculty responsibilities (teaching, scholarship, service);

Comparable compensation for comparable work;

Assurance of continuing employment after a reasonable opportunity for successive reviews;

Inclusion in institutional governance structures; and

Appointment and review processes that involve faculty peers and follow accepted academic due process. (AAUP par. 52-80)

While these particular items would not entirely mitigate the plethora of ways that adjunct and contingent faculty are exploited and marginalized, I think it would at least serve to improve some conditions. Having access to job security and being treated like any other faculty serving on a college campus will allow adjunct and contingent faculty access to the means of production (noted earlier as participation in governance, salary, benefits, professional development, etc.). There is much work to be done and many other facets of exploration that could be explored regarding adjunct and contingent faculty. However, these items at least begin to expose the problem and organize it through a framework of oppression theory so that these issues can begin to be considered as a social justice issue that needs to be addressed.

Works Cited

AAUP. “Background Facts on Contingent Faculty Positions.” Accessed 20 October 2019.

—. “Contingent Appointments and the Academic Profession.” 2014, Accessed 20 October 2019.

—. “Tenure.” Accessed 20 October 2019.

Achieving The Dream. “Adjunct Faculty Quick Facts.” Achieving the Dream, Accessed 19 July 2020.

American Federation of Teachers: Higher Education. Promoting Racial and Ethnic Diversity in the Faculty: What Higher Education Unions Can Do. American Federation of Teachers (AFT), Higher Education, 2010. Accessed 20 October 2019.

Bianco, Marcie. “Academia is Quietly and Systematically Keeping Its Women from Succeeding.” Quartz, 30 April. 2016, Accessed 19 July 2020.

Bombardieri, Marcella. “Graying of US Academia Stirs Debate.”, Boston Globe, 27 December. 2006, Accessed 19 July 2020.

Boris, E., et al. “Perspectives on Contingent Labor: Adjuncts, Temporary Contracts, and the Feminization of Labor.” 1 May 2015, Accessed 19 July 2020.

“Contingent” def. N.1.1. Oxford English Dictionary, 2018, Accessed 23 September 2018.

Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education. “Standard Listings.”,50. Accessed 20 October 2019.

Childress, Herb. The Adjunct Underclass: How America’s Colleges Betrayed Their Faculty, Their Students, and Their Mission. Narrated by Edward. Bauer. Audible, 2019.

Community College Research Center. “Community College FAQs.” Accessed 19 July 2020.

Douglas-Gabriel, D. “‘It Keeps You Nice and Disposable’: The Plight of Adjunct Professors.” The Washington Post, 14 February. 2019, Accessed 19 July 2020.

Flaherty, C. “More Faculty Diversity, Not on Tenure Track.”. Inside Higher Education, 22 August 2016. Accessed 20 October 2019.

—. “Herb Childress Discusses His New Book, ‘The Adjunct Underclass’.” Inside Higher Ed, Higher Education News, Career Advice, Jobs, 16 April. 2019, Accessed 20 October 2019.

Fredrickson, Caroline. “There Is No Excuse for How Universities Treat Adjuncts.” The Atlantic, 15 September 2015, Accessed 19 July 2020.

Health and Human Services Department. “Annual update of the HHS poverty guidelines.” Federal Register, 22 January. 2015, Accessed 19 July 2020.

Hegewisch, Ariane., et al. “The Gender Wage Gap: 2018 Earnings Differences by Race and Ethnicity.” 7 March. 2019, Accessed 19 July 2020.

Hurlburt, Steven., and McGarrah, Michael. “Cost Savings or Cost Shifting? The Relationship Between Part-Time Contingent Faculty and Institutional Spending.” 2016, Accessed 19 July 2020.

Jaschik, Scott. “New Study Shows Difficulty Of Encouraging Professors To Retire.” Inside Higher Ed, 2 August 2013, Accessed 19 July 2020.

—. “Study Looks At Impact Of Adjunct Hiring On College Spending Patterns.” Inside Higher Ed, 5 January 2017, Accessed 19 July 2020.

Kezar, A., and D. Maxey. Faculty Matter: Selected Research on Connections Between Faculty-Student Interaction and Student Success. Pullias Center for Higher Education, 2013. Accessed 19 October 2019.

Lexico. Definition of Contingent. Oxford,

Mueller, Brian., et al. “Adjunct Versus Full-Time Faculty: Comparison of Student Outcomes in the Online Classroom.” Journal of Online Learning and Teaching, vol. 0, no. 3, Sept. 2013, Accessed 19 July 2020.

Myers, Ben. “Where Are the Minority Professors?” The Chronicle of Higher Education, 14 February. 2016, Accessed 19 July 2020

National Archives. “Records of the Office of Education.” 15 August 2016, Accessed 19 July 2020.

National Center for Education Statistics. “National Study of Postsecondary Faculty.” Accessed 19 July 2020.

—. “The Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System.”

National Education Association. “Are you fairly paid.” 2015, Accessed 19 July 2020.

New Faculty Majority. “Facts About Adjuncts.” Accessed 19 July 2020.

Public Center for Higher Education. “The Delphi Project on the Changing Faculty and Student Success.” Accessed 19 July 2020.

Ritchie, Joy. “Review: Gypsy Academics and Mother-Teachers: Gender, Contingent Labor, and Writing Instruction.” Jac Online, Journal of Rhetoric, Culture, and Politics, 1998, Accessed 19 July 2020.

Spangler, Mary. “Part-Time Faculty: Recognizing an Unprotected Minority.” Accessed 19 July 2020.

Stenerson, James., et al. “The Role of Adjuncts in the Professoriate.” American Association of Colleges and Universities, 29 December. 2014, Accessed 19 July 2020.

Thelin, John R. A History of American Higher Education. JHU Press, 2019.

TIAA Institute. “Chronicle Data.” Accessed 19 July 2020.

—. “Taking the Measure of Faculty Diversity.” Advancing Higher Education, 2016, Accessed 19 July 2020.

White, Susan., et al. “The State of the Humanities: Higher Education 2015.” American Academy of Arts & Sciences, Accessed 19 July 2020.

Wyatt, Edward. “Tenure Gridlock: When Professors Choose Not to Retire.” NY Times, 16 February. 2000, Accessed 19 July 2020.

Yoffe, Emily. “Mandatory Retirement: How the Abolition of Mandatory Retirement Continues to Change America in Unexpected Ways.” Slate, 14 April. 2011, Accessed 19 July 2020.

Art Interrupted: Where are the Indigenous Women?

PDF icon

In my research to better understand the influence of Native American cultures on the art created by artists of the United States, I read about the history of contact between the indigenous people of North America and the ongoing appearance of immigrants from Europe. Through North America’s history of interaction between these two groups, there have been poles of promotion towards cultural extinction contradicted by mass amounts of cultural appropriation from Native American cultures. This becomes quite evident when reviewing the effects of the Removal Period on the eastern parts of the United States. Along with the absence of indigenous people first from east of the Mississippi River and then from most areas of the United States outside of government reservations, the lack of indigenous people leaves room for misunderstanding and misinterpretation. From the absence of interaction with indigenous people, myths about the Native American people snowballed into stereotypes that fall into three main categories: the doomed warrior, the wise elder, and the princess or squaw. In this paper, I will focus on the objectification of indigenous women as they are portrayed, moving on to the true history of several indigenous women and, finally, conclude with where we can find indigenous women making a difference in today’s world.

The Objectification of the Indian Princess

The stereotype of Native American women was not only prevalent in the past but is still seen today. One can head to the grocery store and still see these stereotypes on packages of butter, cornstarch, and, even, hair products. The objectification of Native American women has been part of the culture in the United States for more than a century. In the article, “Images of Native Americans in Advertising”, William M. O’Barr explains that:

Native American women are typically presented as one of two quite different images: the American Indian princess (of which Pocahontas is perhaps the most familiar example), and the squaw (typically depicted in gendered roles like collecting and preparing food, caring for children, and so on). Advertising imagery, in particular, alternated between these two depictions of Native American women. (O’Barr, 20)

Later in his article O’Barr writes, “By the end of the 19th century, images of Native Americans had become commonplace in American advertising. Almost all of these images had nothing to do with the real lives of Native Americans nor even advertising products and services to them” (7). Further evidence of this objectification can be seen in S. Elizabeth Bird article “Savage desires the gendered construction of the American Indian in popular media.” She details that:

From early times, a dominant image was the Indian Princess, represented most thoroughly by Pocahontas, the seventeenth-century sachem’s daughter who, according to legend, threw herself in front of her tribe’s executioners to save the life of colonist John Smith. (78)

This role of the Native American woman being represented as Pocahontas has been portrayed throughout cinema and media alike. We see this in movies such as Walt Disney’s 1953 Peter Pan and the 1956 movie White Squaw. The question then arises, why does Pocahontas epitomize the indigenous women in North American culture? Bird answers this question when she quotes Robert S. Tilton:

The Pocahontas/Princess myth became a crucial part in the creation of a national identity. The Indian Princess became as important, non-threatening symbol of white Americans right to be here, because she was always willing to sacrifice her happiness, cultural identity, and even her life for the good of the new nation (79).

Tilton’s quote gets to the heart why this role was so important to the people that killed, stole, and removed the indigenous people from their lands. If Pocahontas is portrayed as this selfless “Indian Princess” willing to give up her whole life for this new nation, then others among her people should be willing to do the same. This convoluted story allowed the American people to legitimize the horrific policies and practices that the American Government was then enforcing on the indigenous people of North America.

Indigenous Women as Heroes

While viewing the documentary The Men Who Built America: Frontiersmen, I heard a word that to this point in my research into Native American history I have never heard used. That word was “hero”, and the narrator was not talking about a European settler, but instead a Native American named Tecumseh. It was a word that through all my years of education was never assigned to an indigenous person when written by a person of European descent. Native Americans were always depicted in film and literature as evil savages that were always taking advantage of situations. They were the enemy of the U.S. Cavalry and the cowboy. They were never portrayed as heroes; instead, they were relegated to the role of the adversary. For this reason, I chose to write about several indigenous women that are heroes, even though they don’t show up in any history books used in schools when explaining the contributions of strong individuals to the U.S.

The first of the three indigenous women I want to discuss is Nancy Ward. She was a member of the Cherokee people and amongst her people is seen as a great hero, and is known by her designation as “most beloved woman”. In the article “3 Historical Native American Women You Might Not Know, But Should” by Dina Gilio-Whitaker, she writes about the amazing things Ward accomplished. She details how:

In the early 1750s, Nancy Ward married the noted war leader, Kingfisher of the Deer Clan, and was at his side when in 1755 he was killed by Creek warriors at the battle of Taliwa. She immediately picked up his weapons and rallied the Cherokee warriors to overwhelming victory. (Gilio-Whitaker 2)

It’s also important to understand that Ward did this while only being seventeen at the time of this battle. By showing her bravery in battle, the Cherokee saw Ward as a powerful and important person among their people. For this reason, Ward was chosen to take part in the following events:

  • Ward was the only female among the voting members of the Cherokee General Council and was the leader of the Women’s Council.
  • As a “beloved woman” she served as a negotiator in important meetings with whites. When the Cherokees met with U.S. officials, Nancy Ward was present, often to the surprise of the assembled white men.
  • In 1781, she addressed the U.S. treaty commissioners after settlers attacked Cherokee towns. She believed that peace would come only if Indians and whites saw themselves as one people, and she thought only women on the two sides could make this happen. (New York Historical Society 1)

Ward’s bravery, intelligence, and experience helped her lead her people, and due to her incredible accomplishments, she is still celebrated by the Cherokee today.

The second indigenous woman that stands out as a hero is Toypurina. She was born in 1760 into the Kumvit tribe of Southern California. By age 24, she was a respected religious leader and medicine woman amongst her people. Where Toypurina truly shined was in her ability to lead her people. This becomes evident when learning how she dealt with the mistreatment of her people by the Spanish. Gilio-Whitaker explains:

In addition to rebelling against the violence of widespread rape, forced labor, and conversion, the final straw had been the banning of traditional dances. Toypurina, widely known as a powerful Tongva medicine woman, 25 years old and pregnant at the time, emerged as one of the primary planners of an attack against the mission. After receiving word of the plan, the Spanish launched an ambush, thwarting the revolt. (2)

When questioned about her involvement in the attack, Toypurina bravely admitted to her part in the planned coup, which took her captors by surprise. For her bravery, Toypurian is celebrated today with murals of her in the Los Angeles area; one of them is 60 by 20 feet in size.

The next hero’s name is Mourning Dove, and she was from the Upper Columbia River Plateau region and was born a Colville Indian around 1884. Unlike the two other indigenous women mentioned who were recognized for their bravery in battle, Mourning Dove was a writer. Originally named “Morning Dove, she changed the spelling to “Mourning Dove” after a trip where she observed a mounted bird of the same name and wished to reflect the mournful nature of the bird. Gilio-Whitaker explains that Mourning Dove thought of herself as a woman between two worlds, “Her first language was Salish, but her Catholic mission school education and later at a business school gave her enough command of the English language to compose manuscripts that would be published into books” (3). Her ambition was to break the stereotype of Native Americans as unintelligent savages. She felt by that writing books she would show how stereotypes of indigenous people were false. Jack and Claire Nisbet document Mourning Dove’s journey to this goal, in their biography of her life. They write:

By 1915, she had completed a draft of a novel with a mix-blood Indian girl named Cogewea as the protagonist. In that same year, she met Yakima businessman and tribal advocate Lucullus McWhorter, who had founded the American Archeologist and encouraged Mourning Dove to tell her peoples’ stories. At her death Mourning Dove left behind 20 folders of miscellaneous writings, which it was discovered that they included many autobiographical fragments. These writings later appeared in 1990 as a book titled, Mourning Dove: A Salishan Autobiography. (3)

Although she made not have lived to see her goal of the breaking of a stereotype happen, I believe she helped others in accomplishing that goal.

With plenty of evidence of past heroes found, I look to our present to find where modern heroes are. All one needs to do to find these indigenous women is an Internet search of “Native American women today” and evidence of different women breaking the stereotypes of the past is easily accessible. One example of the ways that indigenous women are leading the world today is exemplified in the federal government; two indigenous women are the first to be elected into the United States Congress. In the article “First Native American Women Elected to Congress: Sharice Davids and Deb Haaland” by Eli Watkins, it’s evident how these women have been heroes. When researching the accomplishments of both women, it’s obvious that their lives have been devoted to helping others. Several of the accomplishments that I found on Sharice Davids’ (Ho-Chunk) website include:

  • Sharice was raised by a single mom, who spent more than 20 years in the Army followed by a career in civil service at the US Post Office.
  • Sharice is highly trained in martial arts and has competed as both an amateur and professional in Mixed Martial Arts (MMA).
  • Sharice was one of 16 selected to participate in the prestigious White House Fellowship program (2016-2017).
  • Sharice has lived and worked on Native American reservations, working with tribes to create economic development opportunities, programs, and initiatives.
  • Sharice regularly speaks at conferences as a nationally recognized expert on economic and community development in Native communities.
  • Sharice, along with her brother, created Starty Pants – a video podcast that highlights entrepreneurs in the Greater Kansas City area with a focus on women, people of color and LGBTQ founders. (

Accomplishments, such as these, allow others to see the impact that indigenous women are having in our society today.

When viewing the accomplishments of Deb Haaland one can see her commitment to change. Her website lists:

  • Deb was theDemocratic Lieutenant Governor nominee of New Mexico in 2014.
  • Deb served for one year (2012-2013) as Native American Caucus Chair for the Democratic Party of New Mexico (DPNM).
  • She was the New Mexico Native American Vote Director for Organizing for America NM (OFA NM) in 2012.
  • Deb was the Native American Vote Manager for the Diane Denish gubernatorial campaign in 2010.
  • Deb volunteered full-time for Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign.
  • Deb has volunteered for dozens of local and statewide Democratic campaigns and, for over a decade, has worked to engage the Native American community as voters and active constituents.
  • In 2005, Deb led passage of SB 482 in the New Mexico Legislature, whichshe authored to allow members of New Mexico Indian tribes in-state tuition at higher education institutions – regardless of their residency.
  • In 2017, Debpartnered with state LGBTQ civil rights leaders to help pass a ban on Conversion Therapy in New Mexico – one of few progressive legislation signed by the Governor. (

Considering her past achievements, there is no doubt that Ms. Haaland will go on to do great things for the American people.

While searching other indigenous women who have made a change, I was lead to the biography of Wilma Mankiller. Mankiller was the first female Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation but her life was filled with activism. After overcoming several setbacks in her personal life, Mankiller became energized with a new sense of purpose in her life. She soon found the perfect project for her drive and talent in the tiny community of Bell, Oklahoma. Bell was a small village on the Cherokee reservation where most of the residents were poor and spoke only Cherokee. Most were living in unsafe, run-down housing without running water. Using money from grants and the federal government, Mankiller organized a community self-help project. Volunteers from Bell constructed an 18-mile long water system and repaired the dangerous housing.  As Chief, Mankiller focused on education, job training, and healthcare for her people (“Wilma Mankiller Biography” par. 2). What all three of these women have in common is that they weren’t only making a difference within their culture but for all American people. They show that they are willing to give of themselves to benefit the lives of others. These women and many others like them should emody the stereotype of what it is to be an indigenous woman in The United States.

Indigenous Women in the Art World

I will conclude with viewing how indigenous women who are visual artists convey their messages in the works they create. The three women artists that I will discuss are viewed as three of the top indigenous artists in the United States today. They are Merritt Johnson, Wendy Red Star, and Margaret Jacobs.

Merritt Johnson is of mixed Mohawk, Blackfoot, Irish and Swedish heritage. Her artwork falls under mixed media since she uses numerous types of materials, including placing herself in her art pieces, which also makes the artwork a performance piece (Turner 1). One of her artworks that stand out to me is titled is Figure 1.

The power of this art piece comes from the implications it conveys to the viewer. Without being able to see the character, the viewer must use his or her own assumptions based on the dress that she is wearing. Johnson is pointing out how in today’s society there are still stereotypes made about different cultures.

Artist Wendy Red Star works across mediums to explore the intersections of Native American ideologies and colonialist structures, both historically and in contemporary society. Raised on the Apsáalooke (Crow) reservation in Montana, Red Star’s work is informed both by her cultural heritage and her engagement with many forms of creative expression, including photography, sculpture, video, fiber arts, and performance (Wendy Red Biography 1). Her piece here titled, White Squaw (permission to use image was not received) has the artist returning to one of many pieces of media the objectified indigenous women into a stereotypical role. S. Elizabeth Bird wrote, in her previously cited article, that these roles were never given to indigenous actors, but instead were played by people of European descent (76).

The last artist whom I’m introducing is Margaret Jacobs, is from the Mohawk tribe. Jacobs is a recipient of the Harpo Foundation’s prestigious Native American Residency Fellowship and works almost exclusively in one style, which is an abstract metal sculpture (Margaret Jacobs Biography 1). One critic says of her works that they are, “Emotive and sharp edge with knowledge and heavy with history, but not violent or threatening” (Sullivan 1). The piece I found iconic is Figure 2, which shows her talent and proficiency in metal.

My original goal was to show how far indigenous women have traveled to overcome the stereotypes introduced at the beginning of this paper. I would like to say as a society that we have moved past the earlier centuries’ stigmas of indigenous people, but unfortunately, it has not changed. All one needs to do is to Google images of “Native American woman” and along with photos of a proud people, you will still see stereotypical comics and costumes amongst them. Critics might say that this happens within all cultures. I would respond by asking them to do an Internet search of other cultures that reside within the United States and let me know how many derogatory images they find.



Works Cited

Bird, S. Elizabeth. “Savage Desires: The Gendered Construction of the American Indian in Popular Media.” Selling the Indian: Commercializing & Appropriating American Indian Cultures, Edited by Carter Jones Meyer and Diana Royer, University of Arizona, 2001, 62-98.

Gilio-Whitaker, Dina. “3 Historical Native American Women You Might Not Know, But Should.” News Maven. 26 Sep. 2017, Accessed 15 Jan. 2019.

Margaret Jacobs Biography. 2018,, Accessed 1 Feb. 2019.

New York “Nancy Ward 1738-1822.” Women and the American Story. Accessed 18 Jan. 2019.

O’Barr, William, M. “Images of Native Americans in Advertising.” Advertising & Society Review. Vol. 14, no. 1, 2013, pp. 1-51.

Sharice for Congress. 2018. Accessed 20 Jan. 2019

Turner, Jordyn. “Art with a Voice: A Profile of Merritt Johnson.” Inspiring Indigenous Youth. 2018.

Watkins, Eli. “First Native American Women Elected to Congress: Sharice Davids and Deb Haaland.: 7 Nov. 2018. Accessed 27 Jan. 2019.

Wendy Red Star Biography. 2018, Accessed 20 Jan. 2019.

Wilma Mankiller Biography. 2014, Accessed 19 Jan. 2019.

Simone Weil’s Metaxu: Interrogating Truth

PDF icon

Dorothy Tuck McFarland (1983) views Simone Weil as a “writer with profoundly holistic vision of man [sic] and his [sic] relationship to the world” (pp. 168-169). This vision is demonstrated in Weil’s use of Attention, Decreation, and, most specifically, Metaxu to integrate her words into a singular and consistent corpus of literature that we find today. As a hysteric, Weil demands all the knowledge that she possibly can and then is not satisfied and desires more knowledge. The hysteric’s discourse demands knowledge beyond what is given by the master narrative, by the hegemony of the time, and this is exactly what Weil does in her discussion of Metaxu.

I understand the word Metaxu to refer to three main cognitive actions which Weil employs in description of the term: 1) Weil uses action when she postulates that a wall or veil is both a barrier and a way through, 2) She further uses an insistence on looking for and holding together contradiction, 3) And Weil intends the view of the idea of a means versus an ends. This demonstrates the ways I see Weil’s ambiguous use of Metaxu and its multiple, complementary meanings. These themes run throughout Simone Weil’s prose. I note work from Gravity and Grace, as well as The Power of Words.

Weil (2002) does acknowledge a Platonic understanding of Metaxu as a “between” which she refers frequently to “the distance between the necessary and the good” (p. 105). However, her concepts explored in this article demonstrate that Weil is concerned not with middle ground between two contradictories, but the bridge that allows one the means to travel back-and­forth between these points. This use is somewhat different that the traditional use of Metaxu.

For Weil, Metaxu has many different connotations including suffering, contradiction, impossibility, and certain contradictions that connect us to our humanity.  What is of premium importance in understanding Weil’s use of Metaxu is its process or action. Weil takes her action use of Metaxu to accept challenges, contradictions and power struggles as they lead her further along the path of the hysteric’s search for more truth or knowledge.

I have found Weil to be a hysteric, especially from the perspective of the psychoanalytic characterization of the hysteric based on the theory of Jacques Lacan.  The hysteric, in this conception, is the person who cannot accept authorities’ definitions.  The hysteric seeks the fill lack; it should be understood that in Lacanian theory lack can never be filled. Therefore, though not accepting truth Weil continues to seek it out.

Weil was a political activist and thinker who also used theological notions in her writing. Weil does not make a distinction between political and spiritual realms in her idea of Metaxu. The message of Metaxu refers to the transcendent or a “higher plane.” Therefore, Weil’s methods of Metaxu also lead her to an understanding of a move, which is never fully complete, which conflates the spiritual and the political.

The following quote expresses Weil’s statement about her intentionality and missionality toward seeking more and more knowledge of inviolability of God, while demonstrating her ambiguous use of the term Metaxu: In Weil (2002):

What is it a sacrilege to destroy? Not that which is base, for that is of no importance. Not that which is high, for even should we want to, we cannot touch that. The Metaxu. The Metaxu form the region of good and evil. No human being should be deprived of his Metaxu, that is to say of those relative and mixed blessings (home, country, traditions, culture, etc.) which warm and nourish the soul and without which, short of sainthood, a human life is not possible. (p. 147)

This missionality is holistic in nature and she is speaking of that which cannot be put into language, which reaffirms Lacan’s acknowledgment that communication cannot truly take place. It is that dissonance of the Lacanian split subject and the dissonance of all experiences of difficulties, hardships and injustices which are approached by Weil through Metaxu.

Weil (2002) first cognitive action helps us to understand Metaxu with the metaphor of a barrier or a wall:

Two prisoners whose cells adjoin communicate with each other by knocking on the wall. The wall is the thing which separates them, but it is also their means of communication. It is the same with us with God; every separation is a link. (p. 145)

Weil (2002) also writes, “This world is the closed door. It is a barrier. And at the same time it is the way through” (p. 145). This is a cognitive exercise of seeing obstacles as something more.  Necessity is a barrier and a bridge between us and the holy. Weil attempts to reach an understanding from the hysteric’s point of view, note here that this understanding can never be reached.

Weil uses the concept of “necessity” to apply this cognitive exercise on a grand scale, as demonstrated in the following quotes. Weil (2002) states that “God has committed all phenomena without exception to the mechanism of the world” (p. 104). The mechanism of the world rests on necessity and the obligation that the sun and all stars do shine and all matter does create gravity. These are necessary elements and fundamental to the continuous nature of the cosmos. Necessity is the subsistence of all things both finite and eternal, earth and heaven. Weil (2002) supposes that “There are necessity and laws in the realm of grace … Even hell has its laws (Goethe). So has heaven” (p. 92).

It is important to define what Weil means by “necessity.”  To Weil, necessity encompasses all the laws that the physical world we know are ruled by; these laws apply equally to all people. Weil repeatedly returns to the idea of necessity as a foundational concept in her philosophy and uses it in a variety of ways to resolve subjective angst.  In spite of her obsession with necessity, Weil is always in pursuit of more knowledge (as a hysteric).

From Weil’s point of view, the mechanisms of the physical and metaphysical world cause man great suffering; however these mechanisms also provide protection from being consumed by God’s full power and holiness. Again this is an illustration of how the barrier, or the wall, is also the way through, or the means of communication. Weil’s pessimistic views of necessity prove to be, according to McFarland, (1983) “no less threatening to the future of civilization now than they were in the 1930s” (p. 169).

McFarland brings forward necessity as the driving force for the whole cosmos, which is very fundamental to Weil’s work. Weil (2012) writes of it this way:

This universe where we live, of which we are just a particle, is that  distance placed by divine love between God and God. We are a point in that distance. Space, time and the mechanisms that govern matter are that distance. All that we call evil is only that mechanism. God made it so that His grace, when it penetrates to someone’s very center and illuminates their whole being, permits that person to walk on water without violating the laws of nature. But when someone turns away from God, they simply give themselves over to gravity. Then they believe they will and choose, but they are only a thing, a falling stone. (p. 39)

Without the protection of space, time, and matter humanity would evaporate as water in direct sunlight.  Per Weil (2002), “Necessity is God’s veil” (p. 104).  The veil is necessity which keeps humans from being scorched by God’s radiance; necessity perpetuates the universe in its increasing infinitude, necessity guarantees the ex-sistence of space, time, and matter (p. 32). For Weil (2002) “Necessity is the screen set between God and us so that we can be” (p. 33), indeed, that which prevents our evaporation.

Metaxu, demonstrated as seeing obstacles and as something more, is perpetuated by the gravity of laws in the universe which preserve life. As I have said, Necessity is a barrier and a bridge (Metaxu) between us and the holy. Weil (2002) theorizes that “The distance between necessity and good: this is a subject for endless contemplation” (p. 105). This is an example of the way in which Weil thinks with Metaxu.

The mechanisms of necessity display ultimate obedience to divine Wisdom; therefore, being subject to necessity can be our bridge to obedience to divine Wisdom as well. In terms of the veil, it is used in the following way: “In such cases suffering, emptiness are the mode of existence of the objects of our desire. We only have to draw aside the veil of unreality and we shall see that they are given to us in this way. When we see that, we still suffer, but we are happy” (Weil, 2002, p. 23).

Weil’s approach to the somatic aspect of life is explained well by Charity K. M. Hamilton (2013), who refers to “the body [as] that space which can connect us with God or separate us from God” (p. 93). The body is a site of Metaxu for Weil according to Hamilton. It serves as a theological bridge between a person and God. The physical world was strangely inviting to a woman with such an emotional and physical struggle with anorexia.

Out of Weil’s compassion, she sees a different reality than that of the Lacanian discourse of the master; again, as a hysteric, she seeks knowledge beyond what is known even to experts. Weil’s political thought focuses on justice, morality and recognition of the hard-working individual who was oppressed and exploited. Fred Rosen (1979) reminds readers about “Weil’s insight into the double deprivation of the workers which consisted not only of low wages but also of loss of dignity.” (p.306) As Weil (2002) proclaims:

The true earthly blessings are metaxu. We can respect those of others only insofar as we regard those we ourselves possess as metaxu. This implies that we are already making our way towards the point where it is possible to do without them. For example, if we are to respect foreign countries, we must make of our own country not an idol, but a stepping stone toward God. (p. 147)

Weil’s approach is spiritual, humanistic and compassionate, not highbrow and elitist. She found herself in the factory with the worker and single-handedly negotiated a philosophy honoring what she refers to as Metaxu, man’s [sic] connection with “earthly blessing.” Weil is focused on the person one at a time; her compassion led her to the conclusion that she does not have comprehensive solutions but rather individual approaches.  Each works out justice through attentive labor and practice. Weil’s sense of Metaxu as involving contradiction plays out in her view that what is transcendent is also lowly. Weil believed that the entire world is contradiction.

In Howe’s (2009) estimation, “Weil’s conception of roots is heavily influenced by the Greek idea of Metaxu: in this case the existence of intermediaries that form bridges between earth and heaven. Weil placed such importance on these aspects of human [sic] existence” that the result was that she was inclined to embrace earth and heaven. Weil believes all of the cosmos is contradiction, and this contradiction is what grounds us, connects us to the transcendent, or gives us roots.  The world is the social and physical realm in which there is “baseness,” “lowness” and a “property of evil,” (p. 77) in Weil’s writing it is apparently the social realm that creates a barrier “which keeps evil away” from some.

For Weil (2002), Metaxu is acceptance of contraries, e.g. “every man is the slave of necessity, but the conscious slave is far superior.” Weil (2002) conflates “necessity” and “submission” in “The only way to preserve our dignity when submission is forced upon us is to consider our chief as a thing. Every man [sic] is the slave of necessity, but the conscious slave is far superior” as well as stating Metaxu with the following: “if one day we are driven, under pain of cowardice, to go and break ourselves against their power, we must consider ourselves as vanquished by the nature of things and not by men [sic]” (p. 157- 158); here that Metaxu is applicable to “the nature of things” and “men [sic].” It again is seeing more when faced with a barrier, remembering that very barrier is our aid.

The second cognitive action Weil uses as part of her doing Metaxu is to retrieve a picture of the whole by looking at extremes. Weil as the hysteric (in the manner of the hysteric’s discourse) questions the master signifier. This is because the full truth can never be spoken; she considers truth as something to pursue, even though she can only get glimpses of it. The balancing of the challenges she faces include finding the complication with the use of dichotomies, or finding the contradiction in the way we typically think of opposites.

These typical notions have to be taken apart, which happens through suffering, so we can have a better understanding of the true relationship of these ideas. Weil seeks out the “right union” of opposites, which is not about a between, but about what is found on a “higher plane.” Dialectics for Weil are not seen as dichotomous, but rather as meeting and joining by way of a bridge for getting back and forth, and even in contradiction, often being in both places at the same time, which may appear as coalescence, but not a compromise.

This is the nature of Metaxu, to bring together contradictories in spite of their contrariness. Weil (2002) writes that “We must seek equilibrium on another plane” (p. 6). This plane might seem difficult to conceive of or even entertain cognitively, but Weil gives the following metaphor to assist in understanding “another plane” by stating:

If I am walking on the side of a mountain I can see first a lake, then, after a few steps, a forest.  I have to choose either the lake or the forest.  If I want to see both lake and forest at once, I have to climb higher. (p. 99)

Weil kept her own philosophical position and did not give way to the thoughts of the day, especially political ones. Fiori attests to the potential contradictions and inconsistency in Weil’s ideas which only positions Weil as truly a human [sic] and unpretentious political figure. Fiori (1989) writes, “de Kadt declared at the same time that he did not at all share Simone’s ideas, which were drawing ever closer to Gandhi’s” (p. 93) approach to protest. According to Fiori, “The nonviolent editors of the Dutch monthly, Liberation, published a translation of her articles in the form of a booklet. They had quickly discerned her detachment from every separatist scheme and from all factionalism” (p. 93).

Weil was not a joiner, according to her friend Simone Pétrement.  Towards the last part of her “political life” Weil differed in opinions from many, an example, for Bataille, “(the Russian) revolution is the triumph of the irrational,” for Weil, it is the triumph of the “rational.” What for him is a “catastrophe,” for Weil is a “methodical action for which we should strive in every way to mitigate the damage.” While for him the revolution is “liberation of the instincts, especially those considered currently to be pathological,” for Weil it means the need for, as in Fiori (1989) “a superior morality” (p. 96).

Weil seeks to find truth when the opposite is true, and seeks the balance which opposites bring into the foreground. Weil’s likelihood to contradict theories in order to bed within the confines of the discourse of the hysteric is, which is indicated by her symptoms.  Those would be the desire to fight on the front lines while refusing to eat or stay healthy.  These problems did not prevent her from voicing and conveying her political-self.

Weil had particular understanding of the political era she lived in and she presented a holistic and unique perspective on the nature of revolution; one could say that Weil was not interested in the same sort of revolution than that which Trotsky had in mind. Weil didn’t fit into a particular camp of thought on the matters of political import. Whereas Trotsky was interested in revolution within the whole of social order, Weil understood the needs of the individual worker as more important than a revolution that would just instate a new rule.

Blum and Seidler (1989) contend that in Weil’s view “revolutionary insurrection has nothing to do with genuine radical change … [she also thought such insurrections] … do not touch the real sources of oppression and dignity, which concern the structure of work and work relationship” (pp. 62-63). Weil interprets change as illusory to the masses and theorists, a contradiction in their thought to the extent that Weil can see through it into the psyche and have a further knowledge, again as the hysteric seeking what is beyond the truth of theorist.

Again Blum and Seidler remind us that “Weil suggests that genuine radical change can come about without a violent insurrection” (p. 63). Metaxu interestingly is used by Weil to find the abolition of all political parties. Weil (1977) explains that “revolution is the opium of the masses” (p. 120).  It is quite clear that Marxism “constitutes an improvement on the naive expressions of indignation which it replaced, one cannot say that it throws light on the mechanism of oppression” (p. 127).

Weil again states that even the French Revolution left people standing by, “helpless, watching a new oppression immediately being set up,” (p. 127) even after the beheading of the aristocrats. Metaxu is an active way of understanding the moment of actual change, not a conceptual or cognitive construction of an understanding of a historical process. Metaxu is the active process of dealing with contradictions to be worked through starting with action-based awareness (which Weil terms Attention) on the part of the people with which she worked side-by-side.

This can only happen through being-with the workers and educating them on the nature of the action-based awareness, “Attention,” which is state akin to mindfulness and concentration. Weil’s insistence on Metaxu as a cognitive action continues her search for truth, which leads her to the use of Attention. Weil agrees with Marx that oppression can only end if the structure of power has changed. However, Weil contends that what society sees as change is not genuine change, but further oppression.

When Weil uses Metaxu she works through oppositions and contradiction related to work life. This is a union of opposites not in the typical conceptual understanding, but rather through concrete happening. This is due to the political and public sectors being not as they seem. Weil dismantles both sides of the opposites and finds through active awareness that the right union of opposites happened on a higher plane. Weil (2002) writes to the worker, “The desire for vengeance is a desire for essential equilibrium. We must seek equilibrium on another plane” (p. 6).

There is another division in the thought of Weil which demonstrates the nature of dichotomies, as Weil understands it. Thus, she writes in Oppression and Liberty,

As Plato said, an infinite distance separates the good from necessity. They have nothing in common. They are totally other. Although we are forced to assign them a unity this unity is a mystery; it remains for us a secret. The genuine religious life is the contemplation of this unknown unity. The manufacture of a fictitious, mistaken equivalent of this unity, brought within the grasp of the human faculties, is an inadequacy as a philosophy through the description of Marxism as being a religion in the bottom of the inferior forms of the religious life. (p. 165)

Weil on the same page indicts Marxism as being a “fully fledged-religion,” in the “impurest sense of the word” (p. 165).

Weil continues to develop the notion that Marx is only a shade away from Plato’s spirituality in comparison to materialism (p. 165). Weil states elsewhere in the same work that “it is possible to say, without fear of exaggeration, that as a theory of the workers’ revolution Marxism is a nullity” (p. 175). Revolutionary Marxism is based on a reductive ideology, whereas Weil emphasized revolution is a hope that never fulfills its promise. Hence, the nature of the hysterics reality comes alive in the non-fulfilling nature of revolution.

In addition to seeing a barrier as a way through and seeking out contradiction, the third cognitive action that Weil frequently takes in this process of Metaxu is looking at the means versus the ends. The metaphor of the bridge illustrates the concept of means, nicely. The summarization of Weil’s use of the bridge comes in the following text from Gravity and Grace:

The bridges of the Greeks. We have inherited them but we do not know how to use them. We thought they were intended to have houses built upon them. We have erected skyscrapers on them to which we ceaselessly add stories. We no longer know that they are bridges, things made so that we may pass along them, and that by passing along them we go towards God. (p. 146)

Bridges are necessary in order to cross terrain that is impossible to cross otherwise; Weil was only interested in the means, the bridge itself, or the crossing over. Weil’s focus was not on the ends; for her that would be a trap, the end of knowing. Because of the hysteric’s need to continue toward truth, Weil felt nothing was as important as the bridge as the means not the ends.

Weil pictures the bridge as that which can readily be passed over to connect and investigate difference. Weil writes “Only he who loves God with a supernatural love can look upon means simply as means” (p.146). Weil’s concern that humans not use ends, but rather continue with means is for her as being of high importance. When ends come to be a prospect, as a solution to problems or as a way to complete a transaction or communication, this is the lowest of notions, it is the completion of desire.

Desire as means leading to desire as a means is the essence of beauty, because of the infinite nature of such; therefore, ends in themselves or means to an end are like blowing out candles in order to save wax, which is turning the world into darkness and bitterness (because of Weil’s anorexia, this concept of beauty makes sense).  Means is a significant philosophical and theological concept and can be applied to Weil’s representation of the human [sic] ends in the case of endeavors completed, finite, objectified or totalized. Weil saw great distress in a world of only ends.

The importance of means for means’ sake and means leading to further means emphasized synchronicity and spontaneity of the world. It was godly and noble to be of the understanding that means are fluid and related to the flux of life. Weil has numerous commentaries on power, money and resources; and on how they are indeed means that produce more means as they are applied correctly to life.

Weil speaks, the “miser’s treasure is the shadow of an imitation of what is good. It is doubly unreal. For, to start with, a means to an end (such as money) is, in itself, something other than a good. But diverted from its function as a means and set up as an end, it is still further from being a good” (p. 52). Good was for Weil a function or cognitive action entailing means only.

Weil maintains a moral sense which informs her political and religious scruples. She is strongly against what she considers harmful in the shaping of humans, individually and collectively. Weil states that “The Metaxu form the region of good and evil” (p. 147). For Weil, good and evil are equivalent when on the transcendent plane; they are separate otherwise in human [sic] existence.

In the discussion of good and evil, the work that Weil does covers the divide between good and evil which demonstrates a just and spiritual understanding of these realities. Weil reinvigorates those who would give her voice and delivers a sense of values that are above discriminatory morals and provides an approach toward a way of truer liberty. She had, again as Blum and Seidler (1989) have pointed out, escaped the terms of moral relativism that have become the common-sense assumptions within social theory and anthropology because they seemed to be the only alternative to nineteenth century rationalism, which tacitly judged other cultures in terms of the values and institutions of Western culture (p. 213).

Weil seeks to connect philosophy to concrete history. Weil’ s accumulation of writing as collected by Gustav Thibon, from Weil’s work which he entitled Gravity and Grace, amasses material that covers many topics; nonetheless, throughout Weil’s work there is the thread of material on Metaxu.

In various passages of her writings Weil comes close to a depiction of imagination which coincides with the Lacanian notion of the imaginary. For Weil as for Lacan, as Evans (1996) has it, “The imagination, filler up of the void, is essentially a liar.” (p. 16) A Lacanian understanding of the imagination sheds light on Weil’s understanding of the imaginary. As Evans (1996) puts it,

The imaginary is the realm of image and imagination, deception and lure. The principal illusions of the imaginary are those of wholeness, synthesis, autonomy, duality, and, above all, similarity. The imaginary is thus the order of surface appearances which are deceptive, observable phenomena which hide underlying structure; the effects are such phenomena. (p. 82)

Weil (2002) points to the aspect of evil which is the ”Monotony of evil: never anything new, everything about it is equivalent. Never anything real, everything about it is imaginary” (p. 69). All aspects of evil manifest in the same monotony participated in when on farm and in factory.  Weil honors work and the worker as doing the equivalent of divine work, when attended to in the proper way.

If the imaginary is filling the void, then it seems to follow that the cosmos is imaginary or illusion. This is why the image is so powerful in determining the outcome of one’s deliberation about subjectivity. This is where our values are implicated, as Weil (2002) says:  “Illusions about the things of this world (e.g. the image in the mirror, as I see it) do not concern their existence but their value” (51).  Again, Weil thinks positive outcomes of revolution are illusory, because the outcome is always the same; meaning a power structure is still formulated and a bureaucracy remains.  Within the filler of the void is where Weil’s words given capital letters come to play. For many would shed blood for this illusory state of affairs based on the perception of a greater good found in the revolutionary spirit, as defined by those words.

But according to Weil (1977) “when empty words are given capital letters, then, on the slightest pretext, men will begin shedding blood for them and piling up ruin in their name” (p. 270). For example, Greeks experienced frenzy for Troy; Christians retaliation for the sake of good over evil, Knights for chivalry, or Liberty for Americans. Means are the bridge that Weil envisions, while ends are the capital letters. Bracher (1993) suggests that “the more fully these master signifiers are exposed, the less capable they are of exercising their mesmerizing power” (p. 59). Weil exposes the master signifier in the moves which the powerful make in order for them to remain the hegemony.

Three cognitive actions are in place in Weil’s prose; they represent cause for a significant and meaningful understanding of revolution and work.  They help Weil deliver a message of hope, justice, and ethical politics.  These add-up to a move toward the illusion of the world found in contradiction.  This does not refer to paradox; Weil quite frankly understands opposites to stand side-by-side and not coalescing or forming some One notion.  Therefore, Weil can write about the abolition of all political parties, seeming disarray, and the revolution of work-practices.  The nature of Weil’s subversive thought indicates that “revolution is the opium of the masses” and that meaningful work is necessary for hope and justice.



Blum, L.A., & Siedler, V.J. (1989). A truer liberty: Simone Weil and Marxism. New York, NY: Routledge.

Bracher, M (1993). Lacan, discourse, and social change: A psychoanalytic cultural criticism. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Evans, D. (1996). An introductory dictionary of Lacanian psychoanalysis. New York, NY: Routledge.

Fiori, G. (1989). Simone Weil: An intellectual biography. (R. Berrigan, Trans.). St. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press

Howe C. (2009). Cultivating hope: Simone Weil, Metaxu, and a literature of the divine. In J. Hochheimer (Ed.). Hope in the 20thcentury (pp. 61-70). Oxfordshire, UK: Interdisciplinary·Press.

McFarland, D. T. (1983). Simone Weil. New York, NY: Ungar Publishing Company.

Rosen, F. (1979). Marxism, mysticism, and liberty: The influence of Simone Weil on Albert Camus. Political Theory, 7(3), 301-319.

Weil, S. (1977). The Simone Weil reader. G. A. Panichas (Ed.). Wakefield, RI: Moyer Bell.

Weil, S. (2001). Oppression and liberty. New York, NY: Routledge.

Weil, S. (2002). Gravity and grace. New York, NY: Routledge.

Black Performance Theory: The Africanist Dancing Body and Transformations Within the Mainstream

PDF icon

Black Performance Theory, a collection of essays edited by Thomas F. DeFrantz and Anita Gonzalez, establishes Black expressive culture as an area of academic inquiry and acknowledges the emergence and dynamism of Black performativity (Gonzalez and DeFrantz 1). In the introduction, DeFrantz and Gonzalez chronicle the emergence and transformation of Black Performance Theory from Zora Neale Hurston’s “Characteristics of Negro Expression,” to Robert Farris Thompson’s “Africanist aesthetics,” to contemporary efforts by scholars to provide a nuanced discussion of Black performance as historically and artistically significant (2-5). Undergirding Black Performance Theory are ideas and negotiations of Black/Blackness, Diaspora, Black sensibilities, performance, and theory — what they are, where they happen, how they happen, and their implications. A primary and crucial claim made by DeFrantz and Gonzalez is that Black sensibilities emerge in performance whether Black bodies are present or not, but underlying this point is that Black performance is always enabled by Black sensibilities, expressive practices, and people (1). While the collection spans a wide variety of performative practices and works, I focus this critical analysis on two essays that explicitly deal with Africanist dancing bodies and Black sensibilities within the mainstream dancescape. The first essay, written by Carl Paris, explores the question of imminent spiritual potentialities in the works of two postmodern Black male choreographers (Paris 99). The second essay, written by DeFrantz himself, “explores slippage from Africanist performance histories to global hip-hop corporealities” (223). I argue that both essays, though different in dance topic and critique, exemplify the transformational nature of the Africanist dancing body on, through, and by the mainstream. Furthermore, the concepts of connectivity and communal practice underlie both analyses, highlighting the interplay of Black sensibilities with mainstream and global spaces.

In his essay, “Reading ‘Spirit’ and the Dancing Body in the Choreography of Ronald K. Brown and Reggie Wilson,” Carl Paris, dancer, choreographer, and a scholar of Dance and Cultural Studies, engages a variety of Black dance, Black theology, and anthropological sources to read “imminent potentiality” through the works of Brown and Wilson (Paris 102). Citing key Black Dance scholars, like Brenda Dixon Gottschild, Robert Farris Thompson, DeFrantz, Sterling Stuckey, and Halifu Osumare, Paris begins his argument by discussing the role of spirit and the spiritual in the African Diaspora worldview and how it permeates all aspects of Black life (100). He then goes on to discuss the inherent spirituality in modern dance, as discussed by Gerald Myers (101). Combining the inherent spirituality of both Black life and modern dance, Paris then interprets the work of Brown and Wilson, demonstrating how they merge Africanist cultural elements and modern dance to produce choreography that links the negotiation of identities with Africanist cosmological and cultural elements that are grounded in community practice.

Noted Black Dance scholar, DeFrantz, in his essay, “Hip-Hop Habitus v. 2.0,” examines the transformation of hip-hop from a site of local social resistance to an aesthetic of pleasure and cool. For DeFrantz, this transformation is a result of hip-hop’s entrance into the mainstream and its subsequent commodification and consumption on a global scale. Habitus provides the conceptual framework for DeFrantz to argue that hip-hop, like other forms of Black social dance, exemplifies how Black expressive culture can emerge as an agent of social change, but once compressed into popular culture, loses its vitality as a resistant aesthetic practice as it begins to comply with the very system to which it creatively responded (237).  Thus, DeFrantz is in conversation with not only other Black Dance scholars as he reviews the literature on hip-hop, but also with sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, whose quotes on habitus from The Logic of Reason outline the sections of the essay.

My decision to group these two essays in the same critical analysis arises out of the way that they both provide examples of the transformational nature of Black Dance, particularly the negotiation of identities that happens through Black Dance. In the introduction, DeFrantz, and Gonzalez provide their definitions of “Black.” DeFrantz describes it as “the manifestation of Africanist aesthetics” (5) and “action engaged to enlarge capacity, confirm presence, to dare” (5), while Gonzalez describes it as “a response to histories” (6) and “a dialogic imagination. . .[that] responds to imaginations about black identities” (6). These descriptions of “Black” are found in the works of Brown and Wilson, as analyzed by Paris, and in DeFrantz’ discussion of hip-hop habitus. For example, in Paris’ essay, he notes the dualistic nature of Brown and Wilson’s choreography as they integrate Black aesthetics/culture and postmodern dance (102). In doing so, they engage how the sense of self interacts with the dominant culture and the histories that produced it, and at the same time, they use the spiritual element of the dance to transform the sense of self beyond the monolithic notions of the dominant culture.

DeFrantz’s “Hip-Hop Habitus v. 2.0” also confirms the negotiation of identities through Black Dance. In reference to the shifting purpose of hip-hop dance once it is taken out of its original, local contexts, DeFrantz writes, “Public dance competitions change the idiom and its possibilities. . .But in black communities pleasure must be aligned with aesthetic purpose and social function of one sort or another. Global stages overwhelm social function beyond their local identities. . .” (234-235). This suggests that where hip-hop in its local contexts serves as the manifestation of African aesthetics and the confirmation of presence, on the global stage, it becomes imaginations about identities, and therefore, exemplifies the dialogic nature of Black performance even when there is no conscious consideration of the performers’ identities or the histories out of which they emerge. This flexibility is a key component of Black performance which allows Black Dance to transform and be transformed by the mainstream.

In this negotiation of Black identities, there also lies a connectivity and communal element that both Paris and DeFrantz note as key components of the choreographic works and expressive idioms discussed. In the introduction, DeFrantz and Gonzalez describe Diaspora as a “process of community and unification”(11), so “[p]erformance becomes a dialogue between ourselves and others as we ‘make sense’ of diasporic journeys” (11). According to Paris, Wilson and Brown’s choreographies are underscored by the community/unification aspect. Paris notes Brown’s use of a circular formation to convey a sense of antiphonal interaction between individual and community (104), as well as how the unfolding of the choreography suggests the interplay between the spiritual individual and the well-being of the community (107). In addition, Paris maintains that in Wilson’s work, “the dancing body conveys spirit and meaning through community and cultural representation” (112), and Wilson draws in the unification aspect of Diaspora by bringing together three different companies from three different cultures with different backgrounds in dance and training. This serves to amplify “a unified sense of spiritual and community practice” (112).

In a different way, DeFrantz suggests how hip-hop dance and its global reach exemplifies the connectivity and community underlying Diaspora and its representations in Black performance. In his review of previous hip-hop scholarship, DeFrantz writes that for the second generation of hip-hop scholars, hip-hop “became a connectivity for youth across a geography, practiced locally” (226). As he goes on to discuss these “youth” and those engaged in hop-hop dance, he notes that not all of them are Black, or even consciously connected to the socio-historical contexts out of which the dance style emerged. However, something important to consider is the endurance of the imperative to innovate and what that suggests about identity formation within the social landscape. Like Brown’s choreography, hip-hop exemplifies the capacity to work as an individual within a group dynamic. It also demonstrates how that individuality simultaneously influences the group dynamic, much like how the spiritual individual interacts with the well-being of the community. Furthermore, while DeFrantz argues that the “aesthetic of the cool” and the driving force of pleasure behind hip-hop’s global popularity is problematic through the habitus framework, the aesthetic/pleasure aspect is the unifying force across various borders. This is significant because it corroborates DeFrantz and Gonzalez’s introductory claim that even when Black bodies are not present, Black performance is made possible by Black sensibilities, expressive practices, and people (1). Thus, there is an important interaction between Black sensibilities and mainstream spaces that demonstrates the capacity of Black Dance to reach beyond the individual and not only extend out into already-established communities, but to carve new spaces of community, as well.

Black Performance Theory is a critically important work because it introduces various frameworks by which Black expressive works can be interpreted, and in doing so, it establishes the dynamic nature of Black Performance, and by extension Black Dance. This makes it a key source for my exploration into Black women’s capacity to use Black Dance as a vehicle for restructuring boundaries. As they discuss in their introduction, the editors of this collection of essays are not wedded to any framework, but they do make it explicit that their goal is to demonstrate the reach of Black sensibilities and the possibilities of Black performance through Black sensibilities, expressive cultures, and people. One shortcoming of the two essays, due to my focus being on Black women, is that both essays are concerned with men and masculinist performances. However, they still provided valuable information on the role of Black Dance in negotiating identities and carving spaces that simultaneously work within the dominant culture and transform or get transformed by the mainstream. Furthermore, while Paris and DeFrantz focus on men and masculinist performances, Daphne A. Brooks provides an analysis of work by Nina Simone and Adrienne Kennedy to highlight negotiations of Black womanhood through sonic forms in her essay “Afro-sonic Feminist Praxis: Nina Simone and Adrienne Kennedy in High Fidelity.” She examines how sonic distortions found in “Four Women” and Funnyhouse of a Negro exemplify Black women’s discursive practice of speaking in racial and gendered voices, the (dis)identification these dual voices signify, and the histories out of which these voices emerge (Brooks). Like DeFrantz and Paris, Brook draws attention to the interplay between self-identification and hegemonic structures, and how performance is the method for negotiating these identities. Overall, Black Performance Theory is a crucial collection of work and adds much to Black Studies and Performance Studies scholarship, while also raising questions for further examination.


Works Cited

Brooks, Daphne. “Afro-sonic Feminist Praxis: Nina Simone and Adrienne Kennedy in High Fidelity.” Black Performance Theory, edited by Anita Gonzalez and Thomas F. DeFrantz, Duke University Press, 2014, pp. 204-222.

DeFrantz, Thomas F. “Hip-Hop Habitus v. 2.0.” Black Performance Theory, edited by Anita Gonzalez and Thomas F. DeFrantz, Duke University Press, 2014, pp. 223-242.

Gonzalez, Anita, and Thomas F. DeFrantz, editors. “From ‘Negro Expression’ to ‘Black Performance’.” Black Performance Theory, Duke University Press, 2014, pp. 1-15.

Paris, Carl. “Reading ‘Spirit’ and the Dancing Body in the Choreography of Ronald K. Brown and Reggie Wilson.” Black Performance Theory, edited by Anita Gonzalez and Thomas F. DeFrantz, Duke University Press, 2014, pp. 99-114.


Fashion as Protest: Conversant Imagery in Jared Yazzie’s Protest Fashion Line

PDF icon

Protest fashion presents an external visualization of an interior life that should lead to a meaningful dialogue that leads to tolerance and understanding if not affirmation and agreement.  Sarah Maisy noted that “the outfits we choose- or refuse- to wear becomes the front we offer the world…what we wear tells everyone who we are” (Maisy).   However, issues facing contemporary protest fashion seem to grow from the idea that protest creates commodification of dissent, exemplified by the proliferation of goods that bear various protest images and slogans of revolutionaries such as Che Guevara.  The production of these goods allows individuals to purchase designer labels signifying a transgressive expression that becomes, as Thomas Franks recognizes, a:

Capitalist orthodoxy, its hunger for transgression upon transgression now perfectly suited to an economic-cultural regime that runs on an ever-faster cycling of the new; its taste for self-fulfillment and its intolerance for the confines of tradition now permitting vast latitude in consuming practices and lifestyle experimentation. (34)

Promoting lifestyle experimentation capitalism constructs a corporate story for consumers designing them as reactionary suggesting protest fashion is a one-sided conversation.  Unfortunately, when this one-sided conversation becomes a trend, the corporation, through the individual, homogenize cultures.

Homogenization has been a constant issue for Native American communities, in particular where fashion provides a cultural context for protest.  Non-Native designers appropriating Native culture to produce protest fashion inevitably divorce the style from the issues further denigrating Native Americans.  Connie Wang, quoting Adrienne Keene, suggests that:

The public needs to shift their thinking and realize that knowing the story behind a piece- the community it comes from, the meaning behind it- is far cooler than buying a cheap knockoff that will disintegrate after a few washes.  Respect is letting Native peoples represent themselves in fashion, rather than having outsiders represent us. (Wang)

Knowing the story behind a fashion piece suggests that meaningful conversation must take place stylizing fashion protest as a dialogue.

One such contemporary pioneer of protest fashion as dialogue is Jared Yazzie (Dine).  Beginning his fashion line while attending the University of Arizona in 2009, Yazzie began designing cultural misrepresentation experienced by indigenous peoples, filled it with irony and wordplay, and “spits it back out onto a tee shirt” (Bais-Bille).  Yazzie’s fashion line bridges the chasm between Native American culture and mainstream American culture at the benefit of the indigenous designers (Bais-Bille).  Yazzie uses OxDx (overdose) to describe the state of modern society, “Sometimes we need to pull back and remember our culture, tradition, and those who have sacrificed for us” (Yazzie).

Considering Yazzie’s protest fashion as dialogic, this paper examines how a deaf and blind Western-controlled narrative has dictated Native American voice for the last five hundred years through considerations of counter-history.[1]  Secondly, Yazzie’s work raises a voice for Native women and the abuses that they have and continue to suffer at the hands of a racist judicial system.  Finally, Yazzie’s unique protest fashion provides a voice for the greater Native American community by opposing the fetishizing of Native cultures through mascots.  Overall, Yazzie’s fashion protest confronts historical discourse intentionally revealing the reality of the present by unveiling a counter-history in the past.  However, before considering Yazzie’s unique conversational protest, a brief discussion of underlying philosophies of Native American fashion appropriation must first be considered.

Appropriation through Photographic Projection

Perhaps one of the hardest projections to overcome is the romanticized view of Native Americans through photography.  Photography of Native Americans promoted a sentimentalist fallacy that romanticized the “noble savage” from a realist point of view.  Consider, for example, John Riis photography of the destitute in New York City at the end of the nineteenth century.  Riis framed the “realistic” vision of poverty that became a voyeuristic window for the middle class and the wealthy to safely view what was socially problematic without endangering themselves.  While Riis may have, eventually, moved some toward action, the majority of viewers seemed to have been emotionally moved to superficially consider the injustice of the situation without acting superficially.  Protest without action represents, as Christopher Voparil suggests, “the lack of connection between ideas and action” (104).

Just as Riis contributed an awareness of poverty leading people toward sentimentality rather than action, photography captured the idea of Native American identity.  However, photography negatively preserved and projected that identity.  One photographer that excelled at Native American photography at the turn of the twentieth century was Gertrude Käsebier who was known for her softly allegorical images of women and children (Carr 207).

The Red Man, Figure 1, taken in 1900, captures a contrary vision of Native Americans.  It captures a gentle warmness as there are no feathers, no war paint, and no jewelry of animal bones, merely a relaxed human wrapped in a blanket (Carr 208).  Käsebier imagery evokes healthy skin with rough folds of the blanket.  The Red Man inhabits a maternally gentle sphere.  What Käsebier, captures, however, can also be considered a separation of the Indian from humanity projecting an “innocent child” in need of maternal compassion (Carr 208).  Thus, the romanticizing of Native Americans takes the shape of a photograph contextualized by a vision of romantic simplicity characterizing “the noble savage.”

Another eminent photographer who sought to capture and preserve American Indians as traditionally as possible was the Seattle based photographer, Edward S. Curtis.  Curtis desired to help protect traditional aspects of Native American life that he believed was vanishing due to boarding schools and Indian removal policies (Makepeace).  N. Scott Momaday said of Curtis:

Taken as a whole, the work of Edward S. Curtis is a singular achievement.  Never before have we seen the Indians so close to the origins of their humanity…Curtis’ photographs comprehend indispensable images of every human being at every time and every place. (Curtis and Cardozo 21)

Many Native Americans were excited at the prospect of a Curtis revival as he captured aspects of their heritage in ways they believed were lost (Makepeace).

However, Curtis also reinforced the identity of the “noble savage” by staging romanticized and sentimentalized scenes that deflected the attention from the real plight of Native Americans and their loss of human rights.  Curtis removed all Western trappings, parasols, suspenders, wagons, and houses that many tribes had been forced to adopt to be considered civilized.  In Ogalala War Party, Figure 2, Curtiss photographed ten Ogalala men wearing formal feathered headdresses and riding down-hill on horseback with the caption, “a group of Sioux warriors as they appeared in the days of inter-tribal warfare, carefully making their way down a hillside in the vicinity of the enemy’s camp.”

While there is no denying Curtis’ talent, and  that he had a deep respect for those he photographed, the portrayal of the war party is wholly constructed.  Head-dresses may have been worn into battle, but usually they were reserved for ceremonial purposes.  Whether head-dresses were worn or not, the men would not be, “carefully making their way to the enemy camp” in broad daylight where they would be easily seen and, most likely, intercepted before they made it down the hill.  The photograph projects an imagined identity.

Curtis, despite his benevolent designs to capture authentic Indians, projects a modernist construction of cultural dominance.  In “Edward Curtis:  Pictorialist and Ethnographic Adventurist,” Gerald Vizenor suggests that:

The modernist constructions of culture, with natives outside of rational, cosmopolitan consciousness, are realities by separation, a sense of native absence over presence in history.  The absence of natives was represented by images of traditions, simulations of the other in the past; the presence of natives was tragic, the notions of savagism and the motive images of a vanishing race.  The modernist images of native absence and presence, by creative or representational faculties, are the rational binary structures of other, an aesthetic, ideological disanalogy. (180-181)

Modernistic conceptions of “Indian” tended toward romantic images projecting what Vizenor suggests in Crossbloods, “We were caught in camera time, extinct in photographs, and now in search of our past and common memories we walk right back into these photographs” (90).  For Vizenor, camera time meant walking back into a word, “Indian,” that was a simulation of constructed and projected identity that imposed, “the simulation of the indian that is the absence of the native” (Fugitive Poses 152).  These images and an attempt to remember and define an end, “imperialist nostalgia [that] uses a pose of ‘innocent yearning’ to both capture people’s imaginations and to conceal its complicity with the often brutal domination” (Rosaldo 70).

Using photography to capture the authentic Native American is to hunt for a “true Indian.”  Louis Owens suggests that any concept of a “true Indian” is an artificial construct and Euro-American invention: The Indian in today’s world consciousness is a product of literature, history, art, and a product that, as an invention, often bears little resemblance to actual, living Native American people. (4)

Photography suggests definition, capture, and possession through photographic simulation projected upon the Native American community.

Holding the same philosophy as photography fashion appropriates Native Americans through an “honor” and “respect” justification of cultural preservation.  Adrienne Keene suggests in her blog “Native Appropriations:”

Most often people who engage in cultural appropriation use the ‘respect’ and ‘honor’ argument to justify their actions- ‘But I think Native culture is so beautiful!’ or ‘I’m honoring Native Americans!’ To me, there is no respect in taking designs or cultural markers from community, divorcing them from their meaning and context, and selling them for monetary gain.  (par. 10)

Further, Native American fashion becomes appropriated by those who seek to “play” Indian without all the negative Western stereotypes attached to the term (Delroia ).  Karen Kramer, defining appropriation in fashion in Native Fashion Now, describes how these designers:

Appropriate Indian style for their own purposes…often [using] it to assert a kind of ‘true’ Americanness, or to stand for reductionist concepts like ‘freedom’ or ‘authenticity.’ Their garments may be handsomely executed; they may raise the profile or prestige of Native Aesthetics.  But when symbols of Native culture are deployed by people who don’t understand their meaning, it’s like a game of ‘telephone,’ where the message comes garbled.  After all, the ‘America’ these designs now represent is the same one that has oppressed indigenous people for so long. (19)

Through fashion as a “telephone game,” Native American culture becomes misunderstood, absented, and replaced with a simulation of what Indian fashion is imagined to be separated from any cultural significance while consumers misapprehend what their “costume” means.  Where there is no discernable context regarding the clothing, there can be no respect, and if there is no respect, there can be no appropriate action leaving current trends of Native American fashion appropriation locked in a sentimentalist fallacy.  Autonomously “feeling” that wearing misunderstood designs supports Native American communities reveals parasitic lifestyle experimentation.

However, there are ways that non-Natives can respect Native tradition while still supporting Native causes through fashion protest.  Again, Adrienne Keene suggests:

The way to truly respect Native communities in the fashion world is to support and buy directly from Native designers- these designers know the boundaries of their own cultures, know what elements are appropriate to incorporate in their work and sell to non-Natives, are building generations of culture and design, and very importantly, the sales are benefiting members of the community the designs come from, not large corporation or non-Native designers. (par. 8)

Generally, despite Native designs representing a particular community, it would seem that Native American designers produce artifacts that can be appropriately worn by anybody.  On the other hand, Native American fashion, even though it may find marketability towards general audiences, still requires a balanced education to intelligently speak about the issues that the clothing presents or there is the risk of falling into a protest based on sentimentalism and “lifestyle experimentation” (Franks 34).  In short, we are asked to provide an answer when confronted about our fashion that transcends individualism making the person wearing the clothing a viable conversationalist able to address deeper issues honestly.  Jared Yazzie’s fashion provides just such an example combining the Western historical narrative with a rich Native American counter-history.

Giving Native Voices to Honest Views of History

Seeking to open transparent and honest conversation, Yazzie subverts “bastardized symbols of Native culture,” by founding a tradition of deconstructing clothing, while also personalizing, the untold side of American history (Blais-Billie).  Yazzie’s fashion creativity seems to be influenced by his mother and how she made mundane government issued school clothing unique:

There’s government-issued tribal clothing that our parents used to get as Navajo kids on the first day of school.  My mom would fashion it into different stuff- it was super unique.  We weren’t the richest people, but she would make it a little different so everybody would think she bought all her clothes. (Wang)

Small alterations, adornment, and illumination can take inconsequential clothing and transmute them into a fashion statement that reflects community and social concerns.  In many ways, clothing becomes a ceremony exemplifying both the individual and community in which they live.

Yazzie’s brand, OxDx, carries a mission statement that seeks, “To preserve culture by passing on stories through art, fashion, and creative content.  To be socially conscious, constantly connected to our community, and ambitious as hell” (Yazzie).  Here, clothing becomes more than a fashion accessory.  Fashion connects to a social conscience raising awareness and participation in communities allowing fashion to tell stories in the way we dress, what adorns our clothing, and how we are constructing ourselves creatively by wearing that clothing.  Yazzie gives a voice to the voiceless by drawing attention to the messages that illuminate his t-shirt designs.[2]

Figure 3 presents Yazzie’s most popular design, and it is also the shirt that formally launched him into the world of fashion.  Baring the message “Native Americans Discovered Columbus,” the shirt itself is quite understated, and that seems to be part of Yazzie’s goal making it an everyday protest through ordinary fashion.  Even though “OxDx is about resistance, anti-conformity, and a departure from the toxic traps of society” the statement itself is visually arresting drawing the eye to the text imprinted on the t-shirt (Blaise-Billie).  Rather than an aggressive protest action, the shirt takes a historical “fact,” Columbus coming to the New World, and turns it around.  Discovery becomes double-sided rather than historically one-sided.  The simplicity of the statement allows the design to be considered and questioned turning the realization of the shirt into a teaching moment reversing the Western historical narrative to accuse Columbus of genocide in the New World openly.

Since Yazzie’s design promotes conversation, an honest and balanced view of Columbus’ genocide must be explored as it is not accurately taught in Western education.  In this case, Columbus’ own words condemn his actions as he recorded in his journal, “They [Native Americans] would make fine servants…with fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want” (Zinn).  Slavery of the indigenous population become necessary to cater to Columbus’ greed.  His obsessive mantra became, “Where is the gold?” (Zinn).

So contagious was Western greed that in 1508, historian and social reformer Bartolome de las Casas reported that Spaniards, “thought nothing of knifing Indians by tens and twenties and cutting slices off them to test the sharpness of their blades” (60).  Native Americans were enslaved and separated from their families.  Violent and dehumanizing, the Native American population began to die from torture, starvation, exhaustion, and depression (las Casas 66).  Estimations of the death toll between 1494 and 1508 declared over three million Native Americans were killed in Columbus’ search for gold (Zinn).

Columbus’ violence against Native Americans eventually became the hallmark of the American Empire.  Yazzie’s work embodies both sides of this historical event.  Factually, Columbus came to the Americas.  However, when Columbus came to the New World, the indigenous population did discover him.  However, they also unmasked the West and a crueler way of life void of hospitality, humanity, and compassion that Native Americans had initially extended to these visitors.  They discovered that they were the slaves of an imagined empire that violently absented their voices through conquest.  As long as the person wearing the shirt is willing to engage honestly in this incredibly difficult conversation about this imbalance of historical information, then, perhaps, they can wear the shirt appropriately.

Giving Voice to Native American Women

A second important goal in Yazzie’s fashion provides a voice to indigenous women.  Stemming from biological determinism, as Edward Said suggests in Culture and Imperialism, scientific colonizing tactics are first made popular at home, and, so, to understand how Native women have been silenced, it becomes crucial to examine how the “civilized” world used a separate spheres dichotomy to divide their world while forcing this Enlightenment on the New World.

Separate spheres ideology rested on scientific definitions based on biological determinations of men and women.  Barbara Webster notes in “The Cult of True Womanhood,” that women were interpreted, phrenologically as inferior since a “woman is a constantly growing child, and, in the brain, as in so many other parts of her body, she conforms to her childish type” (4).  According to Kathryn Hughes article “Gender Roles in the 19th Century,” women were biologically determined to be physically, intellectually, emotionally, sexually, and constitutionally inferior to men, yet remained morally superior due to their mental and spiritual simplicity.  Because of this moral superiority, women segued men into a state of relaxation and moral balance when they came home as men could become tainted by the immorality of the public sphere.  American print culture promoted a reduction of women’s rights to piety, purity, submissiveness, and domesticity, as portrayed in Godey’s Ladies Book:

The right to love, whom others scorn,

The right to comfort and to mourn,

The right to shed new joy on earth,

The right to feel the soul’s high worth,

Such woman’s rights a God will bless

And crown their champions with success. (Hughes)

The childishness of the poem captures women in a sphere of domesticity that corresponds closely with ideals of women as only capable of being domestically familial, moral, and spiritual caregivers.

Eventually, these two spheres approach became a colonial tactic that assimilated “savage” cultures by seeking to restructure Indigenous values with the woman as the “light of the home” (Welter 152).  Sharon Harrow notes in Adventures of Domesticity that, “Domestic discourse was deployed as a colonizing tactic…cultures were called civilized or savage based on their domestic practices” (9).  Essentially, if the domestic environment in America did not mirror the “civilized” notion of domesticity, then it was savage.  Andrea Smith suggests that colonialism through missionary societies used the tactic to civilize North America. However, it led to widespread sexual abuse of ethnic women, prostitutes, and destitute women as they became equated with “dirty bodies” that were considered sexually violable (Smith 73).  Because the public sphere was not concerned with morality, the violation of a “dirty” body was not considered rape (Smith 73).

Within these conceptions, Native American women were considered “dirty” women perceived as childish sex slaves and work drudges in need of rescue (Barman 237-266).  On the other hand, Indian women were considered sexual to the point of unbridled appetites that demanded discipline and containment (Jacobs 118-199).  In many cases, every act of a Native American woman was perceived as an overtly sexual act due to the perception that they were wild, out of control, and full of debauchery (Barman 264).  Nowhere was this consideration of the sexual more apparent than in the nineteenth century “Prairie Pornography” of Will Soule who photographed Native women as half-naked, ignoble savages, whose bodies were twisted into erotic positions that left scientific discourse and entered into the pornographic (Ringlero 191-192).  Tragically, many Native women are still considered “dirty bodies” even today.

The consequences of colonial policies turning Native women into “dirty bodies” have continued to perpetuate this myth of Native women as nothing has reversed the narrative.[3]  According to the Indian Law Resource Center, four in every five American Indian and Alaskan Native women experience violence, and one in every two have experienced sexual violence (  More than half of all Native American women have been sexually assaulted, and over one third have been raped during their lifetime putting Native American women at nearly 2.5 times greater risk than white women (Bleir and Zolediowski).  Part of the issue stems from the fact that until recently, United States law had stripped Indian nations of all authority to prosecute non-Indians on sovereign land (  Sexual violations by non-Natives were reported at 96%, and the cases, even now, tend to go uninvestigated as the U.S. Attorney Offices have declined to prosecute two-thirds of the reported cases (; Bleir and Zolediowski).

Sexual assault against Native women is not the only disconcerting statistic.  The Center for Public Integrity reported that, as of 2016, there were 5,712 cases of missing Native American women reported to the National Crime Information Center (Bleir and Zolediowski).  Annita Lucchesi, from the University of Lethbridge, Alberta, collected a database of 2,600 cases of missing and murdered Native women in Alberta (Bleir and Zoledowski).  The numbers here become more startling considering that Native American tribal nations did not gain access to FBI databases until 2015 rendering all these numbers an undercount (  At the end of 2017, the FBI’s National Crime Information Center database had only 633 open missing-persons cases involving Native women (  Sarah Deer from the University of Kansas has suggested that violence and the rate of missing Native women are due to a broken legal system that is not providing justice on behalf of Native women (Deer).

Considering the human status of Native American women, Yazzie’s design, Figure 4, provides a fuller picture of injustices against women protesting the current legal culture with the simple design of a woman wearing traditional Native American clothing sitting on a stack of books while typing on a laptop contemplatively, and probably unconsciously, embodying two cultures.  The words, “The Future is Indigenous” illuminate the young woman.  The shirt suggests that it is time to consider the intelligent humanness of Native women while also building a healthy respect for their culture and traditions, which include respect and honor of woman as an essential part of living in a stable society.  As human beings, women are not just domestic slaves nor are they sexually deviant people. Instead, Yazzie’s shirt proclaims the self-determination of Native women as they seek to live educated, vibrant, and beautiful lives embodying both their traditional heritage while also pursuing higher education.

Giving Voice to the Tribal Nations

Finally, Yazzie’s work magnifies the collective voice of Native Americans as a Nation by standing against the use of American Indians as mascots for sports teams.  Historically, using American Indians as mascots would not have been considered insensitive since Native Americans were not scientifically considered human.  Again, biological determinism of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries separated what was considered civilized and savage.  Students learned the ethnographic/biological species of human division as having three primary races and three secondary races: white, which included European, North Africa, through India; yellow, China, Japan, and the Middle East; and, Black, Africa, West Indies, Central America, and South America (Warren 17; Merrill 16-17; Guyot 9; Atwerp 16; Colton 16).  As primary races, they were characterized by their ability to build civilizations with recognizable social hierarchies. Caucasian races were considered superior able:

To actively engage in agriculture, manufacturing, commerce, and other pursuits. They make laws for the protection of life and property, possess an (established) literature, establish schools, and devote much time to intellectual improvement.  (Atwerp 16; Houston 128; Guyot 9)

Not only did Caucasians establish civilized order, but thinkers also considered the white races as the most intelligent, scientific, and moral having the only true religion, Christianity (Merrill 17-18; Hurst 38-41).

Native Americans were a secondary race identified as the “Red race,” a human subspecies defined as:

Savages (Indians) are the lowest and most degraded class.  They have no political divisions or towns, few and rude occupations, cruel or weak government, degrading religion, and no education.  Very few savages cultivate the soil.  The greater part subsists on roots and wild fruit, or by hunting and fishing.  Some tribes are ignorant of the use of fire, and eat their food raw.  The American Indians, some Negro tribes in Africa, and all the native tribes of Australia are savages. (Warren 17).

Within this narrow consideration, Native Americans were no more than simple children, at best, or ferocious animals, at worst.  From these definitions, it should not be shocking that Native Americans would become mascots that are projections of predatory animals or pejorative caricatures that have been projected onto Native Americans.

In 1999 the Society of Indian Psychologists, standing against the use of Native Americans as mascots, argued:

Stereotypical and historically inaccurate images of Indians in general interfere with learning about them by creating, supporting and maintaining oversimplified and inaccurate views of indigenous peoples and their cultures.  When stereotypical representations are taken as factual information, they contribute to the development of cultural biases and prejudices, (clearly a contradiction to the educational mission of the University).  In the same vein, we believe that continuation of the use as Indians as symbols and mascots is incongruous with the philosophy espoused by many Americans as promoting inclusivity and diversity. (Gray et al.)

Nowhere does pejorative representation become more apparent than in sports.  Currently, the number of professional sports teams using Native Americans as mascots has been reduced to five: one baseball team, the Atlanta Braves; two football teams, the Kansas City Chiefs and the Washington Redskins; and two hockey teams, the Chicago Blackhawks and the Edmonton Eskimos.[4]

Linguistically, a mascot is, “a person or thing, animate or inanimate, that acts as a charm or talisman, whose presence is designed, or believed, to bring good luck or good fortune to the possessor” (“Mascot” 197-198).  “Mascot” can be traced to Medieval Latin, Musca, meaning mask, specter, or nightmare, explaining why a particular mascot may be chosen to represent a sports team (Sciolist).  Linguistically, it is possible that the word developed from the Latin to the Old Provencal word masca, witch, to the Provencal word mascot, sorcerer’s charm or fetish, that aided in casting an enchantment (“Mascot” 197; Sciolist).  Sports franchises inappropriately project pejorative concepts of identity by fetishizing Native Americans.

Yazzie’s fashion recognizes the mascot from Cleveland Indians who had one of the most recognizable mascots in baseball. Figure 5 mashes the Indians mascot “Chief Wahoo” with the Misfit skull. Yazzie draws inspiration from the lyrics of “Skull:”

The corpses all hang headless and limp
Bodies with no surprises
And the blood drains down like devil’s rain
We’ll bathe tonight


I want your skulls
I need your skulls
I want your skulls
I need your skulls

Demon I am and face I peel
To see your skin turned inside out, ’cause
Gotta have you on my wall
Gotta have you on my wall, ’cause


(Misfits, “Skull”)

The mashup fits well with the idea that “Chief Wahoo” is a fetish hung on the wall of a genocidal conquistador that feels violently compelled to “hack the heads” off the colonized. The song and the symbol become reminiscent of the Indian Wars where scalps, and other body parts, were taken and sold for a profit.  Chief Wahoo represents a trophy, bodiless, his smiling head taxidermied and displayed representing a violent testament to American empire.


         While much more could be said for Yazzie’s fashion, he does prove that protest can be generally marketed to a broader audience.  However, protest does not come without context.  Finding context, doing the research, having conversations, and understanding why and how protest should happen is necessary to pursue meaningful protest that leads to change.  Yazzie’s work becomes powerful as his fashion allows for positive dialogue “that can bring about change, for what is said can come into actuality” (Peat, 225).  Conversations centered on history/counter history remain painfully contentious, yet to begin healing hearts must be examined through meaningful dialogue.  Yazzie’s fashion line pursues healing that can only happen through constructive and honest conversation.  His fashion line represents a human story that transcends lifestyle experimentation setting protest toward lasting change.



Works Cited

Atwerp, Van. Complete Geography: The New Eclectic Series. 1883. Osher Map Library, University of Southern Maine Glickman Library, Portland. Manuscript.

Blaise-Billie, Braudie. “5 Emerging Indigenous Designers to Know.” Paper, 2 Sept. 2018, Accessed 17 Nov. 2018.

Bleir, Garet, and Anya Zolediowski. “Murdered and missing Native American women challenge police and courts.” The Center for Public Integrity, 27 Aug. 2018, Accessed 13 Nov. 2018.

Carr, Helen. Inventing the American Primitive: Politics, Gender and the Representation of Native American Literary Traditions, 1789-1936. New York, New York UP, 1996.

“Cleveland Indians to drop controversial Chief Wahoo logo from uniforms in 2019.” CBS News, CBS Interactive Inc., 29 Jan. 2018, Accessed 5 Nov. 2018.

Colton, J.H. Colton’s Common School Geography. 1878. Osher Map Library, University of Southern Maine Glickman Library, Portland. Manuscript.

Coming to Light: the Edward S. Curtis Story. Directed by Anne Makepeace, Sundance, 2001.

Curtis, Edward S. Ogalala War Party. 1907. Library of Congress, Accessed 17 May 2018.

Curtis, Edward S., and Chistopher Cardozo. Sacred Legacy: Edward S. Curtis and the North American Indian. New York, Simon & Schuster, 2000.

Deloria, Philip Joseph. Playing Indian. New Haven, Yale UP, 1998.

“Despite Reforms, Native American Women Face High Rates of Crime.” VOA, 11 Sept. 2018. VOA, Accessed 13 Nov. 2018.

“Ending Violence Against Native Women.” Indian Law Resource Center, Accessed 12 Nov. 2018.

Foucault, Michel, et al. “Society Must Be Defended”: Lectures at the Collège De France, 1975-76. New York, Picador, 2003.

Frye, Alex Everett. Frye’s Primary Geography. 1899. Osher Map Library, University of Southern Maine Glickman Library, Portland. Manuscript.

Gray, Jacqueline S., et al. “Society of Indian Psychologists.” Society of Indian Psychologists, 27 Jan. 1999, pp. 1-3, Accessed 15 Nov. 2018.

Guyot, Arnold. Guyot’s New Intermediate Geography. 1879. Osher Map Library, University of Southern Maine Glickman Library, Portland. Manuscript.

Harrow, Sharon. Adventures in Domesticity: Gender and Colonial Adulteration in Eighteenth-century British Literature. New York, AMS, 2004.

Houston, Edwin J. The Elements of Physical Geography. 1882. Osher Map Library, University of Southern Maine Glickman Library, Portland. Manuscript.

Hughes, Kathryn. “Gender Roles in the 19th Century.” British Library, Accessed 26 Apr. 2017.

Jacobs, Margaret D. White Mother to a Dark Race: Settler Colonialism, Maternalism, and the Removal of Indigenous Children in the American West and Australia, 1880-1940. Lincoln, U of Nebraska P, 2011.

Käsebier, Gertrude. The Red Man. 1900. Library of Congress, Accessed 13 Oct. 2018.

Keene, Adrienne. “Native Appropriations.” Native Appropriations, X WordPress Theme, 25 Nov. 2015, Accessed 14 Nov. 2018.

Kesiter, Lisa A., and Darby E. Southgate. Inequality: A Contemporary Approach to Race, Class, and Gender. Cambridge University Press, 1989.

LaLonde, Christopher A. “Chapter One: Trying On Trickster With Wolfsong.” Grave Concerns, Trickster Turns: The Novels of Louis Owens, Norman, U of Oklahoma P, 2002, pp. 20-58.

Lepore, Jill. The Name of War. First Vintage Books Edition, 1998.

Maisey, Sarah. “Fashion Statement: the rise of clothing as protest.” Lifestyle, The National, 24 Mar. 2018, Accessed 12 Nov. 2018.

“Mascot.” The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary A-O, Oxford University Press, 1971, pp. 197-98.

Owens, Louis. “Other Destinies, Other Plots.” Introduction. Other Destinies: Understanding the American Indian Novel, Norman, U of Oklahoma P, 1994, pp. 3-30.

Pagden, Anthony, and Bartoleme De Las Casas. “A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies.” Translated by Nigel Griffin. Virtual Reading Room, Columbia University, 1992, Accessed 11 Nov. 2018.

Peat, F. David. Blackfoot Physics: A Journey into the Native American Worldview. Boston, Weiser Books, 2005.

Ringlero, Aleta M. “Prairie Pinups: Reconsidering Historic Portraits of American Indian Women.” Only Skin Deep: Changing Visions of the American Self, by Coco Fusco and Brian Wallis, New York, International Center of Photography in association with Harry N. Abrams, Inc., Publishers, 2003, pp. 183-97.

Rosaldo, Renato. Culture & Truth: The Remaking of Social Analysis. Repr. ed., Boston, Beacon Press, 2008.

Russell, Karen Kramer, et al. Native Fashion Now: North American Indian Style. Salem, Peabody Essex Museum, 2015.

Said, Edward W. Culture and Imperialism. New York, Random House US, 2012.

Sciolist, editor. “mascot.” The Etymology Online Dictionary, Douglas Harper, 2018, Accessed 28 Oct. 2018.

Skull. Written by Glen Danzing, 1982. Performance.

Smith, Andrea. “Not an Indian Tradition: The Sexual Colonization of Native Peoples.” Hypatia, vol. 18, no. 2, Spring 2003, pp. 70-85. JSTOR, Accessed 12 Oct. 2018.

Vecsey, Christopher. “Chapter Seven: The Exception Who Proves the Rules: Ananse the Akan Trickster.” Mythical Trickster Figures: Contours, Contexts and Criticisms, by William J. Hynes and William G. Doty, Alabama, U of Alabama P, 2009, pp. 106-21.

Vizenor, Gerald. “Chapter 9: Edward Curtis: Pictorialist and Ethnographic Adventurist.” True West: Authenticity and the American West, by William R. Handley and Nathaniel Lewis, Lincoln, UNP – Nebraska, 2004, pp. 179-93.

Vizenor, Gerald Robert. Fugitive Poses: Native American Indian Scenes of Absence and Presence. Lincoln, Bison Books, 2000.

—. Landfill Meditation: Crossblood Stories. Hanover, Wesleyan University Press, published by UP of New England, 1991.

Voparil, Christopher. “Jonquils and Wild Orchids: James and Rorty on Politics and Aesthetic Expereince.” The Journal of Speculative Philosophy, vol. 23, no. 2, 2009, pp. 100-10.

Wang, Connie. “Who You’re Insulting When You Buy ‘Native American’-Inspired Things.” Refinery 29, 25 Nov. 2015, Accessed 16 Nov. 2018.

Warren’s Common-School Geography. 1877. Osher Map Library, University of Southern Maine Glickman Library, Portland. Manuscript.

White, Kalia. “Smithsonian commissions Chandler Navajo designer.” azcentral, 17 Feb. 2017. USA Today Network, Accessed 18 Oct. 2018.

Wyss, Hilary E. Writing Indians: Literacy, Christianity, and Native Community in Early America. Amherst, U of Massachusetts P, 2003.

Yazzie, Jared, editor. “About OXDX Clothing.” OXDX Clothing, Shopify, 2018, Accessed 17 May 2018.

—. The Future Is Indigenous. OXDX Clothing, OXDX, 2018, Accessed 24 Oct. 2018.

—. MISREP. OXDX Clothing, OXDX, 2018, Accessed 24 Oct. 2018.

—. Native Americans Discovered Columbus Tee. 2018. OXDX Clothing, OXDX, 2018, Accessed 26 Oct. 2018.

Zinn, Howard. A People’s History of the United States. New York, Harper Perennial, 2010.



[1] “Counter-history” draws on Foucault’s conception of “subjugated knowledges” that have been buried by formal systemization, and that have been disqualified as “inferior ways of knowing” due to their lack of civilized scientific foundations (7-8).

[2] Yazzie’s cprotest fashion has been featured in the Native Fashion Now exhibit which toured the nation in 2017, and he also received a commission from the Smithsonian in the same year during the exhibition (White).

[3] “Dirty bodies” concepts have also been termed the “Pocahontas Perplex,” Rayana Green (1975), a myth that continues to endure due to the Disney animated movie, and the “Celluloid Maiden,” explored by M. Elise Marubbio’s Killing the Indian Maiden:  Images of Native American Women in Film (2006), who sacrifices herself for a white man.  In both cases the Native women may not be directly “dirty,” but they are sexualized as exotic Princesses who is purely sexual and sexualized.

[4] The Cleveland Indians, while not changing their name, have agreed to drop the Chief Wahoo logo beginning in the 2019 season (“Cleveland Indians”).

James Baldwin’s Interpretation of Stagger Lee: Poetry and Politics

PDF icon

James Baldwin’s body of work represents a strong example of the intersection between politics and poetry. His keen sense of Black culture and how it bumped into White culture is reflected in his novels, essays, screenplays, speeches, and poems – he knew the context of racism and translated the context into several different art forms. While many were able to access his essays in publications such as The Progressive and by reading his novels once the first was published in 1953 at the time it was written, Lynn Orilla Scott and D. Quentin Miller bring to life his work today.  In their synopses of trends in literary criticism of Baldwin’s body of work, both illustrate how the relevance of Baldwin’s body of work is resurging so that we, in 2019, can access his art in order to understand the present day (Lynn Orilla Scott; D.Quentin Miller).  In that spirit, this essay will analyze his poem, “Staggerlee wonders”, to illustrate how Baldwin is able to weave together politics and poetry in order for his readers to see how Black and White culture clash with each other.

Biographical and Historical Context

Born in 1924, James Baldwin experienced the Great Depression first hand and intensely: Baldwin came of age in Harlem in a family of 11. In biographical interviews, he reveals that he did not experience overt discrimination based on race until his late teens, after he graduated from high school and worked in New Jersey laying railroad tracks (Field). To add to his mystic, Baldwin served as a preacher at a Pentecostal church while in high school in Harlem; one of his teachers in high school was another aspiring writer Countee Cullen (Field; J. Baldwin, No Name in the Street).

By 1958, at the age of 34, Baldwin was an established American writer. His life as a writer enabled him to meet several well-known thinkers such as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1957, just as King was in the midst of writing Strive Toward Freedom (Field). Baldwin found King to be “a younger, much-loved, and menaced brother” who was “very slight and vulnerable to be taking on such tremendous odds” (Oates 128). There was a sense of awe of King by Baldwin, who, a few years after their first meeting, was present during a sermon that King preached in Atlanta after King had stood trial in Montgomery, Alabama. In the sermon, King surmised that Whites, like those who were part of the trial, “who knowingly defended wrong,” were ruled by fear, to which Baldwin reflected: “He [King] made the trials of these White people far more vivid than anything he himself might have endured” (Oates 156). In several historical accounts of King’s life and of the Civil Rights Movement, Baldwin emerges as a muse, a critic, and an activist (L. V. Baldwin, There Is a Balm in Gilead: The Cultural Roots of Martin Luther King, Jr.; L. V. Baldwin, Behind the Public Veil: The Humanness of Martin Luther King Jr.; Oates; Payne).

Baldwin, the Poet

Nikki Finney, who wrote the introduction to the most recent edition of Baldwin’s poetry called Jimmy’s Blues and Other Poems, argues that Baldwin’s writing style was poetic in and of itself, and, further, that he wrote poetry to distill his thinking (J. Baldwin, Jimmy’s Blues and Other Poems). Baldwin’s need to distill is supported by his prolific writing. For example, by simply reading the first paragraph of the two-page epilogue to No Name in the Street, the reader is exposed to the breadth and depth of Baldwin’s reflection upon the 1960’s. Read with a 2019 lens, Baldwin’s perspective is utterly profound:

This book has been much delayed by trials, assassinations, funerals, and despair. Nor is the American crisis, which is part of a global, historical crisis, likely to resolve itself soon. An old world is dying, and a new one, kicking in the belly of its mother, time, announces that it is ready to be born. This birth will not be easy, and many of us are doomed to discover that we are exceedingly clumsy midwives. No matter, so long as we accept that our responsibility is to the newborn: the acceptance of responsibility contains the key to the necessary evolving skill. (J. Baldwin, No Name in the Street 196)

His use of metaphor brings to life the intense cultural evolutions that America experiences at it evolved from its independence in 1776 until now, and easily defines our role in the evolution: we need to support the evolution. Or we readers need to serve as midwives in America’s re-birth to follow Baldwin’s metaphor.

This re-birth that Baldwin sees can be found in “Staggerlee wonders,” a poem that was originally published in 1982, just a few years prior to Baldwin’s death in 1987. In this poem, Baldwin takes on the voice of Stagger Lee, who is legendary (Brown). One legend has it that Stagger was a pimp in St. Louis and that he shot Billy, another Black man from the underbelly of society, because Billy stole Stagger’s white Stetson hat. It is a legend pregnant with symbolism and is revisited over and over again through generations of African Americans (Brown). White folks celebrate the legend in songs, including those by The Grateful Dead and Amy Winehouse (the Dead have a twist on the story where a woman takes down Stagger, for killing “my Billy”) (Hobart; Andrewes; The Annotated “Stagger Lee”). On the one hand, this is a legend that reinforces the White stereotype that Black people will kill each other over a hat – especially Black people who live in the city; especially Black people who are pimps; especially Black people who drink while gambling in the wee hours of the morning. On the other hand, Stagger can represent truth and justice, because sometimes in the oral history of Stagger Lee, Billy is a police officer. Baldwin presents this representation of truth and justice masterfully (Miller).

The Poem: Staggerlee wonders

Baldwin’s “Staggerlee wonders” poem is seventeen pages, written in four parts, and alternates between statements by Staggerlee and imagined conversations between Staggerlee and White folks such as “the Great Man’s Lady” – these conversations are indicated by italicized words: “Ma! he’s making eyes at me.” Taken as a whole, the poem serves as a near-perfect mirror of how minority and majority cultures bump into each other and tumble with each other and how Black people persist through their oppression by White people.

The first part begins with Staggerlee wondering what “pink and alabaster” people think of Black people. Baldwin poignantly uses the term “nigger” to refer to Black people, emphasizing the negative origins of the word, after all, it is Staggerlee who is wondering ­– Staggerlee, the legend, whose story emphasizing negative stereotypes of the other is told over and over again in song and verse (Jerry; Mencken; Motley and Craig-Henderson). While this dehumanizing term is used for humans that Staggerlee relates to best, “they” is used to explain a culture that he at once understands, yet does not understand. In setting this stage about how Staggerlee wonders about Whites, Baldwin sequences observations about how they (White people) interact with the world:

They have never honoured [sic] a single treaty

made with anyone, anywhere.

The walls of their cities

are as foul as their children. (J. Baldwin, Jimmy’s Blues and Other Poems 4)

This section ends with a conversation between Staggerlee and a White lady:

No, said the Great Man’s Lady,

I’m against abortion.

I always feel that’s killing somebody.

         Well, what about capital punishment?

I think the death penalty helps.


That’s right.

Up to our ass in niggers

on Death Row.


Oh, Susanna,

         don’t you cry for me! (J. Baldwin, Jimmy’s Blues and Other Poems 6)

This opening part gives portraits of the hypocrisy that sometimes exists with oppression, particularly with the image of who is most likely on Death Row: Black men who White people are okay killing. In this case of hypocrisy, Baldwin illustrates how absurd it can be to fight for the rights of the unborn, yet not fight for the rights of the living. Why not stand up for those who land on Death Row, especially given what we know about police discrimination and, in particular, unlawful practices in the South? (Alexander; Stevenson). This illustration sets the stage for the subsequent parts that lead the reader through the evolution from this oppression.

Part two begins with Staggerlee wondering “how niggers should help themselves,” again from a majority perspective. The lyrics to “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” are used to emphasize that a common answer for the majority is for divine intervention. Or maybe the hope that the minority would just disappear (Brown). Yet, Staggerlee moves on to emphasize the difference between he and the majority culture:

My days are not their days.

My ways are not their ways. (J. Baldwin, Jimmy’s Blues and Other Poems 7)

Then Staggerlee begins to wonder about the notion of color blindness, which when one takes into account that this was written in the early 1980’s, highlights a concept that began to emerge in the popular press by people who aimed to raise awareness about race (and to quell racial incidents) (Vogel). This notion of color blindness led Staggerlee to wonder about what they do not want to see:

What is it that this people

cannot forget?

Surely, they cannot be so deluded

as to imagine that their crimes are original? (J. Baldwin, Jimmy’s Blues and Other Poems 8)

After a list of ways Whites have attacked Blacks, Staggerlee wonders whether or not they realize that “we are all liars and cowards” but then a thought occurs to him:

Then, perhaps they imagine

That their crimes are not crimes? (J. Baldwin, Jimmy’s Blues and Other Poems 9)

These philosophical questions bring to the forefront one theme of the poem: the hypocrisy of the majority White culture in America. Baldwin keenly points out that Staggerlee is not engaged in these thoughts to clarify the beliefs of the majority:

They know that no one will appear

to turn back time,

they know it, just as they know

that the earth has opened before

and will open again, just as they know

that their empire is falling, is doomed,

nothing can hold it up, nothing.

We are not talking about belief. (J. Baldwin, Jimmy’s Blues and Other Poems 10)

Rather, Staggerlee takes the reader step-by-step through the evolution of America that occurred in the mid- and late-20th century, acknowledging that change has occurred. And Staggerlee anticipates the change will not stop: the majority will become the majority-minority population by the mid-21st century (Frey).

Part three – the shortest part – begins in a similar tone to part two, but acknowledges a change: that “the niggers made, make it…the niggers are still here.” In this section, Staggerlee is wondering about how Whites think about Black survival, and ultimately debates what survival means. Staggerlee illustrates one survival technique using a character named Beulah, who works for “the alabaster lady of the house” – she “gives me a look, sucks her teeth and rolls her eyes in the direction of the lady’s back, and keeps on keeping on” (J. Baldwin, Jimmy’s Blues and Other Poems 11). This alludes to a shift in the conversation between Beulah and the alabaster lady, who “changes the subject to Education, or Full Employment, or the Welfare rolls” as if there was a start to building a more equal relationship:

Don’t be dismayed.

         We know how you feel. You can trust us.

Yeah. I would like to believe you.

But we are not talking about belief. (J. Baldwin, Jimmy’s Blues and Other Poems 13)

Staggerlee is acknowledging that the road to restoring the relationship between the oppressed and the oppressor is long and hard; the road is not about belief, but about action.

The fourth and final part represents a shift from Staggerlee thinking about the “Great Man” to thinking about the “Kinsmen” in this life.

Ah! Kinsmen, if I could make you see

the crime is not what you have done to me! (J. Baldwin, Jimmy’s Blues and Other Poems 17)

The reflections that Staggerlee cites in this part explain how White domination is ending and how his people survived:

During this long travail

our ancestors spoke to us, and we listened,

and we tried to make you hear life in our song (J. Baldwin, Jimmy’s Blues and Other Poems 19)

Yet, in the last lines of the poem, Staggerlee knows there is not hope even if there is kinship and focuses on “life everlasting” and to

…decline to imitate the Son of the Morning,

and rule in Hell. (J. Baldwin, Jimmy’s Blues and Other Poems 19)

This final part as a whole ties together much of Staggerlee’s thinking throughout the poem and grounds his life experience in that of his ancestors, creating imagery that makes the reader recall all of the wonders of Africa. There is a strong sense is that White domination is ending in Staggerlee’s mind – literally and figuratively.


Every stanza in the seventeen-page-long poem “Staggerlee wonders” can be unpacked to reveal how Black and White cultures clash with each other throughout American history, and in particular throughout contemporary American history – about the period of time that Staggerlee is reflecting upon (1950s through the 1970s), about the period of time Baldwin wrote the piece (early 1980s), and about the present day (2019). It is a stunning example of how a poem can be political and remain beautifully poetic. It recalls heartache, yet raises up humanity. It gives White people the benefit of the doubt, yet also questions whether or not the oppressor will really change. What’s more, Baldwin does so without using the word Black or White. Rather “nigger” and “Great Man” and “pink alabaster lady” are used to describe the people who are in Staggerlee’s reflections.

Given this significant example of a poem that is political, there are only two published literary critiques of “Staggerlee wonders”: a comparison of Staggerlee in Baldwin’s and Toni Morrison’s work (Miller) and a quick analysis within a broader conversation about the legend of Stagolee.[1]  This poem seems like gold for literary critiques. For instance, there might be much to learn from the fact that Baldwin does not use “Black” or “White” throughout the piece, which in and of itself is a strong statement on social constructions. Baldwin makes a statement about how language can be used powerfully to illustrate truth and justice. Nikki Finney’s Introduction to the Jimmy’s Blues and other poems –  by itself, an example of the power of language – explains the impact of Baldwin’s language:

I do not believe James Baldwin can be wholly read without first understanding White men and their penchant for tyranny and “unrelenting brutality.” If you read Baldwin without this truth, you will mistake Baldwin’s use of the work nigger as how he saw himself, instead of that long-suffering character, imagined, invented, and marched to the conveyor belt as if it was the hanging tree, by the founding fathers of the Republic, in order that they might hold on for as long as possible to “the very last White country the world will ever” (J. Baldwin, Jimmy’s Blues and Other Poems xiv)

Finney’s framework leaves no doubt that Baldwin’s poem “Staggerlee wonders” is a political statement about Black-White relations. Indeed, Brown suggests that Baldwin might have used Bobby Seale, who was integral to the rise of the Black Panthers during the 1970s, as his mental model for Staggerlee. If so, this is a strong political statement given the Black Panthers’ effect on politics, which at one point led then Governor Ronald Regan of California (Republican), to call for a ban on guns. In other words, Black people led White people to ban guns, a concept that seems foreign today when many White people refuse to give up their Second Amendment right to own a gun.

As Baldwin is analyzed with this political lens, several other nuggets of contextual clues emerge within the notes peppered in his publications of the few scholars who analyzed “Staggerlee wonders”. For example, the politics that Baldwin engages in with “Staggerlee wonders” are the same the politics described in less-than-beautiful ways by Lee Atwater, who was Republican strategist – an advisor to Presidents Reagan and Bush in addition to serving as the Republican National Committee Chairman in the 1980s. Atwater was recorded in 1981 as saying:

“You start out in 1954 by saying, ‘Nigger, nigger, nigger.’ By 1968 you can’t say ‘nigger’— that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states’ rights and all that stuff. You’re getting so abstract now [that] you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is [that] Blacks get hurt worse than Whites. And subconsciously maybe that is part of it. I’m not saying that. But I’m saying that if it is getting that abstract, and that coded, that we are doing away with the racial problem one way or the other. You follow me—because obviously sitting around saying, ‘We want to cut this,’ is much more abstract than even the busing thing, and a hell of a lot more abstract than ‘Nigger, nigger’.” (Rick Perlstein, “Exclusive: Lee Atwater’s Infamous 1981 Interview on the Southern Strategy,” Nation, 13 November 2012)

Atwater is explicit in his description about how Black and White culture clashes, so explicit that one cannot help by wonder: Can there be hope for America? Baldwin’s writing and his way of framing the two cultures give some rays of hope because of the poetic nature of it. A poem is not the likely place to confront race. Yet, this concept is exemplified in “Staggerlee wonders”, as the poem disarms readers and makes them think. The prose clarifies that Baldwin listened to the various meanings of the legend described within other forms of art – music and oral histories – and continued to ask questions about the meaning of the legend. Then, Baldwin created a poem illustrating his thoughts on race as the politics of America ebbed and flowed during his lifetime. 


The nature of poetry and politics has a foundational question: when is poetry political? If politics is a fight for change, when we know the context of the poet, we begin to understand how the poet translated the political context into art and, therefore, the poem becomes political. A deeper analysis might be to understand who was able to access the art (in this case a poem): where was it published? Did librarians buy it and include it in the stacks? Another analysis could be to understand the impact of art. For example, organizational theorists have introduced the multiple stages of grief as a way to understand the change process (Kübler-Ross). And, to manage grief, sometimes a poem is in order.

For example, a recent biography of Baldwin by Joseph Vogel analyzes Baldwin’s life in the 1980’s. At the time, Vogel argues, Baldwin felt a strong force pulling him back to America from France, where he sought intermittent sanctuary throughout his life. Baldwin needed this sanctuary in the 1970’s as he needed time to reflect on the Civil Rights era of the 1960’s. In one interview given during the 1970’s Baldwin offers thoughts about intersectionality, a term that summarizes his life as a gay, Black man rather succinctly:

I’m in the process of experimenting. I say a new language. I might say a new morality, which, in my terms, comes to the same thing. And that’s on all levels­––the level of color, the level of identity, the level of sexual identity, what love means, especially in consumer society, for example. Everything is in question, according to me. (Vogel 25)

Baldwin’s poem and the chance to analyze it offers us the chance to take steps to understand the long and deep history of racism in America and to read beyond the canon of literature that is present throughout the curricula in high schools, in colleges, and in graduate schools – even when you are an activist scholar. And, in perhaps the best way to honor the legacy of Baldwin’s body of work, to use the fodder that Baldwin gives the reader to identify ways to be a co-conspirator in making the dream of a just society – a society where its members care for each other regardless of race – a reality.





Works Cited

Alexander, Michelle. New Jim Crow : Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. The New Press, 2010,

Andrewes, Simon. “The Story of the Story of Stagger Lee.” International Socialism (00208736), no. 154, 2017, p. 179. edo.

Baldwin, James. Jimmy’s Blues and Other Poems. Beacon Press, 2014.

—. No Name in the Street. Dial Press, 1972.

Baldwin, Lewis V. Behind the Public Veil: The Humanness of Martin Luther King Jr. Fortress Press, 2016.

—. There Is a Balm in Gilead: The Cultural Roots of Martin Luther King, Jr. Fortress Press, 1991.

Brown, Cecil. Stagolee Shot Billy. Harvard University Press, 2003.

D.Quentin Miller. “Trends in James Baldwin Criticism 2010–13.” James Baldwin Review, Vol 3, Iss 1, Pp 186-202 (2017), no. 1, 2017, p. 186. edsdoj, EBSCOhost, doi:10.7227/JBR.3.12.

Field, Douglas. James Baldwin. Liverpool University Press, 2011.

Frey, W. H. Diversity Explosion: How New Racial Demographics Are Remaking America. Brookings Institution Press, 2014,

Hobart, Mike. “The Life of a Song: Stagger Lee.” The Financial Times, 2018.

Jerry, Anthony Russell. “The First Time I Heard the Word: The ‘N‐Word’ as a Present and Persistent Racial Epithet.” Transforming Anthropology, vol. 26, no. 1, Apr. 2018, pp. 36–49.

Kübler-Ross, Elizabeth. On Death and Dying. Scribner, 1969,

Lynn Orilla Scott. “Trends in James Baldwin Criticism 2001–10.” James Baldwin Review, Vol 2, Iss 0, Pp 168-196 (2016), no. 0, 2016, p. 168. EBSCOhost, doi:10.7227/JBR.2.11.

Mencken, H. L. “Designations for Colored Folk.” American Speech, vol. 19, no. 3, Oct. 1944, p. 161. edb.

Miller, D. Quentin. “Playing a Mean Guitar: The Legacy of Staggerlee in Baldwin and Morrison.” James Baldwin and Toni Morrison: Comparative Critical and Theoretical Essays, edited by Lovalerie King and Lynn Orilla Scott, Palgrave Macmillan, 2006, pp. 121–48.

Motley, Carol M., and Kellina M. Craig-Henderson. “Epithet or Endearment? Examining Reactions Among Those of the African Diaspora to an Ethnic Epithet.” Journal of Black Studies, vol. 37, no. 6, July 2007, pp. 944–63.

Oates, Stephen B. Let the Trumpet Sound: A Life of Martin Luther King, Jr. HarperCollins, 1982.

Payne, C. M. I’ve Got the Light of Freedom: The Organizing Tradition and the Mississippi Freedom Struggle. University of California Press, 1996.

Stevenson, Bryan. Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption. Spiegel & Grau, 2014. edshlc.

The Annotated “Stagger Lee.” Accessed 8 Oct. 2018.

Vogel, Joseph. James Baldwin and the 1980s: Witnessing the Reagan Era. University of Illinois Press, 2018.

[1] (Brown 206–11) This citation also highlights how the legend of Staggerlee also has varying spellings of his name.