Just like moons and like suns,
With the certainty of tides,
Just like hopes springing high,
Still I’ll rise.
Maya Angelou “Still I Rise”
This week marks the final week in Black History Month. I had hoped to begin interviewing three women during the last week of January in order to celebrate the various histories African American women bring to Southern Polytechnic State University; however, one winter storm followed by another cut short my opportunities for interviews and for publishing their stories in what is already the shortest month of the year, February. I have managed, however, to interview two of the three women, and I am going to borrow the theme for this blog from Dr. Kami Anderson, who discussed with me one of her favorite theoretical lenses that she uses, both personally and academically: Standpoint theory.
Standpoint theory proposes that an individual’s own perspectives are shaped by his or her experiences in social locations and social groups. Dr. Anderson told me that Standpoint theory helps people to understand why they perceive things in a certain way. Understanding this perspective can help people to determine how they relate to others, why they use the language they use, what questions they ask of others, why they react to other groups the way they do, and why they react to social conflict the way they do.
The older I get, the more I understand Standpoint theory in my own life. I have never completely left behind the young, Midwestern girl who grew up with four older and three younger siblings in rural Indiana. I am still the girl whose father was part of the first generation in his family to get a college education and a doctorate. I am still the child who became a voracious reader because her home was filled with books and because her mother took her to the library every other week. The stories I read as a child have impacted how I interacted with others in the past and in the present.
As I talked with Dr. Anderson and with Ms. Phyllis Weatherly, the Director of the Career and Counseling Center at SPSU, I wanted to understand their stories and how their stories have created the strong, black women who teach and who direct services in our polytechnic university.
Ms. Phyllis Weatherly
I conducted Ms. Weatherly’s interview over the phone during one of the all too frequent snow days we have had this year. She told me that she is a “Georgia peach,” a native of the state. She was born in an Atlanta hospital and grew up in Covington, Georgia. She was in elementary school when Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee.
Ms. Weatherly’s mother, father, and four siblings expected her to go to college—they considered her smart
because she always had her nose in a book. Given that her father, the oldest child of 11, completed his GED while she was in college, and her mother, completed 10th grade and later cosmetology school, some might think it surprising that her parents wanted a college education so badly for their middle child. What Ms. Weatherly and I have in common is that our parents understood the importance of an education. She told me that there were always numerous books around their home and that her mother, like my own, read daily. Ms. Weatherly’s mother strongly believed that there was no reason not to be able to know something. That’s what books were for. When Ms. Weatherly’s mom wanted to ensure that her children could go out and act properly, she had on hand The Amy Vanderbilt’s Complete Book of Etiquette.
The value Ms. Weatherly’s parents placed on education and on Martin Luther King’s message of freedom and choice can also be seen in the school choices that were a part of their lives. When the local school system allowed freedom of choice concerning which schools students could attend (it would be three more years before schools were desegregated), Ms. Weatherly was in the fifth grade. Her parents discussed the option of transferring to the white school, and that is what the children ended up doing. The white community was not happy to have them and the black community thought they were selling out. In the meanwhile, Ms. Weatherly’s mom continued to keep all of them informed of the Civil Rights movement, and Ms. Weatherly and her siblings continued to quietly protest for change. Doctor offices were still segregated in the 1970s. When Ms. Weatherly and a sibling were in their pre-teens, they sat on the white side of the doctor’s waiting room. The older, white clientele glared and they were waited on last, but they were allowed to remain where they were.
Because Ms. Weatherly’s older brother was interested in her education, he helped to pay for her to attend summer school. At the ripe old age of fifteen she graduated from high school and headed to Berry College, which is located near Rome, Georgia. She planned on becoming a doctor. The only problem was that she hated her premed degree with a passion. Her roommate at the time was a psychology major, and Ms. Weatherly found this degree more interesting. She figured she could still help people with a psychology major. She understood that she would have to get a graduate degree if she were to practice in this field and she was okay with that.
Ms. Weatherly took a year off between her undergraduate and graduate studies so that she could earn money for graduate school—she planned on paying her way through school. She worked in corporate America as she studied to earn her master’s degree from Georgia State University. While she knew she didn’t want to stay in corporate America, she did get a lot of help from the human resources person at Citycorp, who helped her with her job search (the company was closing down the division where she worked). In 1983 Ms. Weatherly began her internship at Southern Tech, which is now SPSU. She was hired part-time and then full-time at the school.
When she was offered a job to establish guidance services at Georgia Highlands (then Floyd College), she took it; she decided to commute and did so for sixteen years. She made the decision to commute because when she studied at Berry College, Rome had not been kind to minorities. While she did not enjoy the commute, she otherwise sees the years she spent at Georgia Highlands as a good experience. She liked the challenge of the job and the supportive nature of her colleagues. While at Georgia Highlands she realized that she had a knack for administration and management. When the Vice President of Student Development went out of town she was often asked to oversee the division. When the opening for a director came available at SPSU, Ms. Weatherly applied for the job and was offered it.
At the end of our interview, Ms. Weatherly mentioned that she was lucky to have people like Barbara Anderson, who hired her to work at Southern Tech, to mentor her. Barbara helped her to get involved with the Georgia College Personnel Association. In 1992 Ms. Weatherly served as the president of the association. Ms. Weatherly ended our interview by telling me that being a strong black woman in the South has often been a struggle; she finds that the gender issue is the “big player” and that the race issue adds to the complexity.
Dr. Kami Anderson
Ms. Weatherly’s standpoint comes from a Southern experience that began during the Civil Rights era. Dr. Anderson’s standpoint comes out of Milwaukee, Wisconsin in a segregated community even if her formative years occurred after the conclusion of the Civil Rights Movement. Dr. Anderson told me that Milwaukee was quite small and quite segregated during her youth. She found that the same people ended up converging in certain schools and at certain events.
This changed for her when she chose to attend a school with an ESL program and it was more integrated and bilingual (she has a strong background in the Spanish language) . It also had more gang members at the school even though it was also situated near a white, wealthy neighborhood. This school was quite frightening for her because of the territorial brawls at lunch or after school. She left school quickly at the end of the day in order to ensure that she was able to catch the bus home. It wasn’t until she went to college at Spelman that she felt she could genuinely trust people and that people could be genuinely nice.
At Spelman Dr. Anderson began as a Spanish minor and as a bilingual biology major. However, the more Dr. Anderson studied, the more she became interested in language, international communication, and anthropology. She ended up graduating from Spelman with a Spanish degree. After she graduated she worked for a Cancun hotel chain.
More and more she came to realize that she was interested in people and human culture so she decided to earn her MA in International Communication and Anthropology at American University in Washington, DC . Here she realized that the degree mainly concerned policy and infrastructure, but she was more interested in cultural anthropology since it concerned human culture. She managed to negotiate changes in her degree so that it would also concern cultural anthropology. She ended up becoming certified as bilingual in Spanish and English as well.
After she graduated from American University, she worked for the Catholic Relief Services. She was in charge of press relations and wrote stories and articles on relief efforts in both the English and Spanish languages. While working for the Catholic Relief efforts, she saw a lot of Colombia while the cartels were at their peak and were demolishing towns on waterways. What she began to realize is that the people who lived on the waterways were mainly black, Afro-Colombians. The cartels were mainly killing black people. The agriculture in this area was being wiped out and along with it a population as well.
This created a new lens through which she examined Latin America and a new lens through which she viewed how people in countries outside of Latin America were exposed to facts concerning Latin American countries. Dr. Anderson saw that the problem was a lack of cultural sensitivity.
What she learned while in Latin America convinced her that she needed to get her doctorate in Intercultural Communication. Back in the states she attended Howard University in Washington, DC, and she worked as a Spanish teacher in the Prince George’s County Public School System and at the SEED Public Charter School of Washington, DC as she did so. As she taught students in the classroom, she learned about standpoint theory in her graduate studies and realized that it applied to what she was learning as she taught: students who were at risk of dropping out of school needed to be reached before they got to middle school. Once they were of middle school age their standpoints were often already set. If they didn’t understand the benefit of an education by this time, they were likely to become lost in the system. Dr. Anderson realized she needed to be a role model for the students in order to help them break the stereotypes concerning their options for what they could do in the world.
In the meanwhile Dr. Anderson was pulling from her life experiences as a traveler and from the theory she was learning in the graduate classroom to write her dissertation, The Shifting Character of Social and Ethnic Identity among Black American Sojourners. The primary focus of her research concerns the construction of identity. One of the things Dr. Anderson came to understand while traveling is that her blackness was experienced in varying ways depending on where she traveled. While she was in Mexico where there were no black people, people wanted to touch her hair—her braids—because they were different from what they knew. In other international areas where stereotypical characters on television shows and in the movies had influenced thinking, people thought it was okay to talk with her using the b-word. In Senegal, Africa Dr. Anderson had her childhood identity challenged. Her mother had provided her with an “African” upraising, but this was challenged in Africa because her skin color was lighter and she wasn’t raised in Africa.
One of Dr. Anderson’s most current works, “Multiplying the Others from the Margins: Experiences of a Black Junior Faculty Member in a non-STEM Discipline at a STEM Institution” appeared in the book Still Searching for Our Mothers’ Gardens. It examines social identity as it applies to her work at SPSU. If the status quo at a STEM institution is to be white, male, tenured, and teaching in one of the major fields, then Dr. Anderson’s experience so far is “other” than this: black, female, junior faculty, and teaching in the core. In this paper she discusses the ways in which the tips she received in graduate school have not worked at SPSU. While all junior faculty members may feel silenced by senior faculty, she looks at the ways in which these issues are extended for junior faculty who are seen as other. She has found that junior faculty members most negotiate what support and/or lack of it is like at a particular university in a particular location.
Humans learn at an early age how to group things together because of likeness and how to isolate things because of difference. I remember watching Sesame Street when I was young and singing along with Big Bird, “which one of these things is not like the other; which one of these things does not belong.” The act of grouping together based on likeness and isolating based on difference becomes a troubling action when used for humans based on items of difference given meaning due to social constructs. Social constructs exist only because there is human agreement that the items mean something because we have provided that meaning. The wave of a hand could as easily mean what a raised middle finger means and vice versa.
I talked with both Ms. Weatherly and Dr. Anderson about Black History Month. What the two women share are their gender, their skin color, a strong educational background, and an interest in human interaction and communication. Many social constructs/stereotypes exist for the first two of these items that are often applied to them. However, their stories are quite different as well. The facts that make them individually different can get lost.
A final thing that they share are the conflicted emotions concerning Black History Month. On one level setting aside the shortest month of the year for all contributions from black people the world over seems absurd. What often comes from doing so is a reductive look at the accomplishments of black people.
However, there are many positive things that come from the month as well. When we recognize the achievements of black people in one month, we begin to see that these achievements belong in other places of our curriculums and of our lives. What may begin as a shared understanding that is on our lips for a short while, may become something that is part of our standpoints later on. Thus, we can rise, we can rise, we can rise.