This is a love letter to Black women in the academy. The impetus for this letter stems from a sister circle, where women of color academics regularly gather to temporarily experience life without the protective armor needed to survive the academy, to build community and to rejuvenate and restore. The circle is a space—unaffiliated with any institution—that is carefully curated by Black women academics and offers other sister scholars time to pause and reconnect with the land and the ancestors that walked the land before them, as calling upon one’s ancestors can bring peace, calm and enlightenment.
I would like to offer Black women in higher education this note: the armor you wear may reduce the impact of the scars left from all the large and tiny cuts inflicted upon your minds, bodies and spirits but is heavy to carry day in and day out, for the duration of your career. And, as such, it is an imperative that you intentionally rejuvenate. We have many ways to heal ourselves from the harms inflicted upon us as we navigate the halls of predominantly white institutions. Some people, like me, build community in sister circles; others seek movement; others would rather pause, be still and rest.
This love letter is not a how-to for rest and rejuvenation. What this letter is, however, is a reminder that you are seen and are not alone. The hands of so many other Black women are on your back, supporting your through the challenges of navigating the academy as a Black woman. Theorists like Kimberlé Crenshaw have shown that navigating predominantly white and male spaces as a Black woman requires the navigation of multiple systems of oppression. Many of us are the only one in our unit, which means the academy can be a very isolating place.
This love letter is a reminder and recognition. A reminder that you are not alone. While you might be alone in your program, countless sister scholars are cheering you on. We recognize your daily experiences and your brilliance.
Some people may wonder, if life in the academy is that bad, then why remain? Black women academics like you stay because your presence means so much for so many of your students. You stay because you know that, for some students, you are the only Black professor they have ever had in their higher education journey. You stay because you are far too familiar with the system of higher education that routinely violates those whose identities fall outside cis, white, male and heterosexual. You stay because you want to resist a system that was built on a mythical notion that whiteness reigns higher on the racial hierarchy—a notion that is far too common in American society. You stay because you want to eradicate that system for the sisters who follow you.
Black women in the academy, you are not alone. You are seen. You are heard. Your presence is felt. Your Black woman colleagues across the academy know you. They are you.
Institutions of higher education can, and often do, inflict harm and trauma on your body, mind and spirit. Being a woman of color in the academy can feel like being in a violent, abusive relationship that you want to escape but cannot. Yet despite this, without the presence of Black women, there would be no academy—no hallowed halls of intellectual curiosity and advancement. American institutions of higher learning were built on the backs on Black women. Georgetown University, Brown University and the Universities of Georgia and Virginia recently acknowledged the role of enslaved labor in the creation of their institutions.
And what many people don’t care to realize is that Black women have always professed. We have always served as knowledge producers, political strategists and educators. Far before Black women were allowed in the ivory tower, they were building and testing theory. Sojourner Truth, born into the institution of slavery, spoke of intersectionality in her now famous speech “Ain’t I a Woman” long before it was an academic theory. Like Truth, Maria Stewart was a Black feminist theorist, abolitionist and a strong voice for the rights of Black people and women. The intellect of Black women has shaped disciplines from English to neuroscience to nursing to public policy.
Your presence is resistance! You are the fertile soil in which disciplinary complication arises, as your intellect often transgresses academic boundaries and pushes against the status quo. Because of this it is you, Black women, who have been integral in transforming traditional ways of knowing. You lead universities, run centers, direct programs, while also being “aunties” to your students. You are the present, and you certainly are the future!
So, this love letter is to Black women in the academy. To let you know that while you may be the only one in your program or school, or on your campus, you are not alone. You belong, despite what anyone tells you. You are brilliant. And this letter is here to remind you to do the thing:
Write the book!
Take that position!
Quit that job!
Take up space!
Rest and restore!
Do it! Do it all! Do none of it!
Be you, sis, and do it unapologetically.
From the sister circle, your sisters hold you with love and compassion. Your sisters, collectively, say you belong.
Sent with love and compassion,
Tia Sherèe Gaynor, Ph.D.