[In this response, Ashley Rhett eloquently situates her own experience as a teacher in Charleston in 2014 in the longer context of the historical experience of black women in South Carolina and the US, and their representation in narratives of slavery. She explains how intensely, how intimately the texts speak to her, how difficult it is to separate herself from them: how they get under her skin. “Every black woman,” writes Ashley, “is just one degree of separation from a mad woman in the attic.” SKL]
I Am a Black Woman, or Why Teaching May Be the New Slavery
I am a black woman. I am a public school teacher.
I opened the first day of Spring semester the same way I opened the first day of Fall: with poetry. I tell my students, “I love women and I love poetry. In fact, the only thing I love more than women is black women, so I’ve selected for us a book of poems by a beautiful black woman named Tracy K. Smith called Life on Mars. I don’t think there’s anything people can do that’s more intimate than share a book of poetry or a poem together. And if you don’t mind, I’d like to share a poem a day with you.” And then I sit down. And then in my best poet voice, I read “The Weather In Space” aloud… twice. I love it, and I try to make them love it too. It seems to work.
Two days later, I am called into the principal’s office to face allegations of being a racist.
I am a black woman. I am a public school teacher. If I love myself and the skin I’m in, little white girls feel so intimidated by me that the school administration conducts an inquest into my classroom. Interview my students. Ask them about my racist remarks.
The head of my department tells our principal that she believes that I am a victim of reverse racism. “I don’t think so,” she shoots back, closing the subject forever.
The next day, I don’t read any poems. A little blonde girl smiles. A black girl asks me why not. Something in me, very small and very precious, struggles for breath. I try to explain to the class why a situation like this makes us all lose, but my words fall flat. No one is really listening. We all know, me most of all, that the darkness has already won.
Several weeks later in a parent teacher conference with the mother of the young girl who started the rumors, I am told, “She thinks that you don’t like her. That’s why she’s being so disrespectful to you in your class. Maybe if you just explained to her that you do like her, then the rest of the year will go better for both of you.”
Or maybe if you cared about your daughter’s character, you would explain to her that sometimes an apology is as close as anyone ever gets to escaping their guilt. Maybe if you told her that it is not my job to like her. Maybe if you explained to her that her attempt to destroy my reputation and my career successfully destroyed any possibility of rapport between us. Maybe. But I don’t say any of that. “Sure. I’d love to talk to her,” I say with a smile and reach across the table to shake hands with an enemy.
I am a black woman. I am a public school teacher. I am a slave. I’m amazed by how much I see myself in every narrator, how I could literally reach into the text to touch a face or tug a sleeve and feel my own garments move. But I know I’m not a Baby Suggs holy or a thick loved Sethe, perhaps not even a faithful Ella. My suffering is too small to have made me righteous, too gentle to make me desperate to protect what I love, and too brief to prove my mettle.
Today I’m told that a kid I’ve been teaching since he was thirteen years old looked at a group of kids and said, “What are you niggers looking at?” I can’t decide what bothers me more: that someone I love would say something so cruel, that those black kids chose not to kick his ass, or that damn misplaced preposition. There’s so much to be outraged about, even when we think the past is over and done. It never is. But oh that it would be!
In the midst of all these things, I find myself, a black woman, a public school teacher, and a slave in a class that is seeking to study the narratives of slavery. I’m tired and giddy with caffeine most nights. I’m always amazed by how little I know about this topic. If it’s not in my blood, its traces are on my skin. I struggle to spell names like Fanon. I try to separate myself from the content. I tell myself that taking it personally interferes with learning. Still at night, my book pressed against my chest, I dream of the sea and its dark impenetrable depths. I hear wood creaking and waves breaking. Mysteriously, I am able to see my reflection in the blackness of those waters.
What would you have me to say? My whole life I’ve just been saying what has been expected. This time I don’t know what that is. This time I don’t know if I want to oblige. My skin is penance enough. It’s 2014, and it’s still penance enough.
I’m sitting up late tonight, anxiety and fear coursing through my body like the currents of a river about to overflow her banks, breach her boundaries, wreak havoc on a peaceful land. Tomorrow our class is going to read Equiano. After that, Morrison. My students picked her, not me! Still, I must be a masochist. A part of me thinks that I’m doing the right thing for myself by keeping these dirty little stories from being told. Another part of me pushes back with the thought that it’s more significant that these stories are being lived. Every black woman is just one degree of separation from a mad woman in the attic. If we let her out, we have to take her place. Sometimes it’s better to let sleeping dogs lie. Either way, we want the big house to finally go up in smoke. We don’t have to be there to see it. We’ll settle for the stories. People are more comfortable with the ones white women tell, I think.
I tell my colleagues that the only thing that separates teaching from slavery is that teachers don’t have to be afraid of the people they serve. It’s a little lie I tell myself: that I am not afraid. But I know. I know that I’m the ghost of slavery present, concealing myself in hallways or behind desks, obscured by the eerie blue light of some projector, a wraith. The mirror of the present isn’t as haunting as the one that brings the past into view, but it is a ghost nonetheless.
Life on Mars by Tracy K. Smith
The Weather in Space
Is God being or pure force? The wind
Or what commands it? When our lives slow
And we can hold all that we love, it sprawls
In our laps like a gangly doll. When the storm
Kicks up and nothing is ours, we go chasing
After all we’re certain to lose, so alive—
Faces radiant with panic.