Motherhood in the Ivory Tower

 Review of Laboring Positions.

March 2, 2015

Nzinga-Johnson, Sekile.  Laboring Positions. Black Women, Mothering and the Academy.   2013. Demeter Press: Ontario

When I offered to review Nzinga-Johnson’s 2013 edited volume on Black women and mothering in the academy I felt compelled to do so as I needed to read something that directly addressed the intersections of my identity as a Black woman, recent mother, professor and administrator.  Recent books about women being mothers in the academy have privileged a worker/mother dichotomy that tends to elevate the “worker” identity above that of the mother. This divide did not speak to neither my colleagues of color’s nor my experiences after becoming mothers and performing more care-related work (mentoring, community building, activism) on our college and university campuses.  I know that as a working Black mother in the academy my story is not unique, but it is one that if often unheard, under valued, and silenced within the halls of the ivory tower.

That silence is being undone with the publication of Nzinga-Johnson’s 2013 edited volume: Laboring Positions: Black Women, Mothering and the Academy.  The fourteen articles in this edited volume speak to the various experiences of Black women, Black mothers, and mothering/care work done in the academy.  Using a variety of methods and disciplinary perspectives, Laboring Positions is grounded overall in Black and intersectional feminist understandings of mothering/motherhood.  The authors themselves are diverse in terms of their positionality within the academy as articles from graduate students sit alongside and interweave with those from adjuncts, tenure-tracked and tenured professors.  Using these different perspectives, Laboring Positions seeks to “disrupt dominant mothering experiences” (2013:2) within the walls of academia. Each chapter both exposes the various structural inequalities inherent within the academy and the “complex oppression” (2013:4) Black woman face in this setting.   Nzinga-Johnson argues that often in the academy those in positions of power undervalue the work done by women, especially women of color, because their work is seen as more “feminized” and “maternalized” labor.  This type of labor is at odds with the larger culture of the academy that privileges a hetero-patriarchal, individualistic, readily available worker.  For Nzinga-Johnson, and the other authors of this edited volume, Laboring Positions was envisioned to generate a “fuller conversation” about academic mothering and Black women’s working lives as a counter-narrative to the dominant cultural narrative of work in the academy.  

Split into three sections, Laboring Positions explores three interconnected themes entitled Transgression, Testimonies, and Transcendence.  What sets this book apart from others with similar content is the intersectional and explicit way motherhood and mothering is understood, defined, and discussed. Stemming from Black feminist, womanist, hip-hop feminist, radical queer perspectives, and other extending theoretical frameworks, Nzinga-Johnson’s edited volume centers the intersections of Black women’s mothering experiences, maternal labor, and their negotiation of relationships both inside and outside of the academic setting.  Marr’s chapter illustrates these intersections as she uses her memoir and a “queer hustlin mama pedagogy” (2013: 68) to explain how she makes a homeplace inside and outside of the classroom as a way to resist the oppressive culture of the academy.  For Marr, graduate school is a place that privileges White and middle class culture, neither which she belongs.  Instead, she is a single queer Black mother of two children working the adjunct scene while simultaneously finishing her dissertation and staying true to her desire to mentor her students.   This chapter, along with five others, illustrates the book’s first theme -- Transgressions -- where each author names, reclaims, interrogates and reframes the space that they occupy as Black intellectuals who are also mothers and/or do mothering work in an environment that does not recognize their full humanity nor their complexity.

In the third section--Transcendence--the authors focus on how motherhood can be a transformative resource for those who want to go beyond academic boundaries and redefine the place of mothers and mothering within the academy.  The four pieces in this section use more activist and intellectual frameworks to question and redefine the place(s) Black women can occupy as multifaceted beings.  Covington-Ward’s autobiographical article charts four main stereotypes that haunt Black woman both inside and outside the academy--mammies, matriarchs, Strong Black Women (STW), and/or welfare queens.  Using Marvin Carlson’s notion of “ghosting,” Covington-Ward explains that Black academic women’s performances are tied to the ghosts of these historical representations and offers three suggestions to deal with these negative recurring ghosts: 1) define how you are in your own terms; 2) do not allow the ghosts of the past to consume your present life; and 3) do not internalize these tropes as real. The author asserts that these three actions are meant to help Black woman/mother academics transcend the negativity of the academy.   

Yet, each chapter could easily fall under the second section of this volume - Testimonies - as each is a direct testament to the personal experiences of Black woman in the academy at various stages in their careers.  While Nzinga-Johnson places five pieces of work in this section, the underlying connector throughout the book is the space given to the authors to tell their (and others’) stories of what it means to be a Black woman, mother and/or do mothering work within the walls of the academy.  From being a single-mother to either navigating motherhood and fieldwork in a post 9/11 world or examining the negotiations Black women have to make between their tenure and biological clocks, this section is full of rich narratives and complex analysis.  

Overall, Nzinga-Johnson accomplishes what she and the other authors of this volume set out to do.  All of the fourteen entries contribute to larger conversations that address mothering, Black women, and care work within the academy.  Laboring Positions is a rich collection of Black feminist intersectional thought that not only gives recognition and voice to those whose stories and perspectives are typically “othered” within academia, but also provides a breath of fresh air for those looking to explore and expand on issues of race, class, gender, sexuality, family, care, and/or motherhood within the ivory tower.   

Nicole Truesdell, Ph.D., is Director of the McNair Scholars Program and Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Beloit College.


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