I became a writer after I contracted rheumatic fever when I was in the seventh grade and began to imagine the world through the window of my second floor bedroom window. We had no medical insurance even though my mother work as a nurse aide at Charity Hospital and as a ward clerk at Flint Goodridge Hospital. It was my mother’s friends and colleagues at Flint who helped provide doctor visits, EKGs, and medications in Flint’s emergency room without charge my mother. It was an amazing pediatrician, Dr. Segre, who treated me without charge and placed me on a year’s bedrest. My teachers sent my homework by my friends who visited me before and after school. My neighbors brought me breakfast and lunch. The radio brought me forbidden blues and jazz. An old oak tree filled with birds, squirrels, flying roaches, and the sights, and sounds of Sixth and LaSalle Streets liberated my imagination. I began writing stories in my head that I still remember today.
I have been driven to tell the stories of my family, my neighborhood, my church, and my life as a black–lesbian–feminist–mother and writer to explore and abrogate the cross generational transmission of trauma that is my experience as a black woman in general and more specifically and historically in my family transmitted from my grandmother to my mother, from my mother, to me, and from me to my daughter. The histories and stories of brutal racism, sexism, and classism along with the effervescent resilience of friends, neighbors, community, spirituality, music, books, art, food, and family has made my personal recovery from internal and external emotional, physical, and sexual harm possible. I wrote about the cross generation of trauma in a Memoir, The Saltbox Box House on Bayou Black. The memoir chronicles the trauma that was rooted in a traumatic event that happened to my grandmother, her siblings, and parents on Bayou Black, near Houma, Louisiana. However, much of that trauma origin story is shrouded in protective mystery. Covered up for the perpetrators. Shrouded in silence and mystery to protect the victim from furthering harm as well as from the truths of what happened to them. I wrote a historical novel, A Thousand Crowning Sorrows to imagine and explore the Post Reconstruction and Jim Crow lives of my family only hinted at during wakes, funerals, wedding, and holiday celebrations.
I worked and put myself through college and graduate school while being the primary breadwinner for my mother, grandmother, and my daughter. When I worked for a state agency, The Louisiana Bureau For Women, I was fired, was evicted from my apartment, and for a time, I was judged harshly by my family and friends for saying I was black, lesbian, and feminist during a work staff meeting and later into television cameras and microphones. With the support of the ACLU, I sued the State of Louisiana and later appealed the state’s decision to the Fifth Circuit of Appeals and sort of won. I won case law, that the state had indeed fired me for saying I was Black, lesbian, and feminist, and that my speech was constitutionally protected speech. However, the state convinced the court it could have been fired me for cause and the state prevailed. I moved away from New Orleans with my daughter. Although, I have returned to New Orleans often, I have never been at home again. I moved between New Orleans, the Bay Area, and Cambridge, Massachusetts for twenty-one years. I have now lived in San Francisco, California for the past seventeen years, the longest I have ever lived in one place.
I have been a part of a women’s writer’s group in every community I have lived in since my mid-twenties. I have developed and maintained writing partnerships for over forty years. I have been and done all of those things with only fragments of time and space to write and make a living for myself and my family.
At sixty–years old I decided I wanted a writer’s life and made a decision to pursue an MFA in nonfiction at USF. The major product of that learning was a memoir, The Salt Box House on Bayou Black, now in the process of moving toward publication. As I completed the first drafts of the memoir, I realized that the core of the erased history story of my family’s experience in South Louisiana could not be captured in memoir, but had to be imagined in fiction. Only, I didn’t know how to write fiction. I knew I didn’t have the time to teach myself fiction in the organic ways I leaned nonfiction and, I decided to pursue another MFA. I enrolled in Goddard College and earned a MFA in fiction. The major product of that learning is, the historical novel, A Thousand Crowning Sorrows, which is also moving toward publication. After earning a MSW, a MFA in fiction and nonfiction, and having gained the skills and experience I required of myself, I am now fully living a writer’s life and practice I asked myself for. I am writing, continually learning, build writing partnerships and community, and launching a writing wellness practice .
When I imagined and began to put into place the practical foundations for a writing and teaching wellness practice, I thought about the teachers and philosophies that influenced me and inform who I am as a writer, teacher, and healer. In my life experience, a teacher is a rare gift that transcends educational theories and educational programs, and systems. Great teachers transform students into lifelong learners by their example and the content, structures, the contexts of their teaching. When I think deeply about teaching, I think of Elizabeth Vondy, as I do whenever I have a writing conundrums or decisions to make, like guiding a memoir and historical fiction novel to publishing and beginning to launch a liberation–feminist–healing writing practice. I took her English class at Louisiana State University in New Orleans in the fall of 1969. She was a white southern woman with neat permed and bobbed hair, pearls and matching sweater sets, low heels and stockings, a briefcase, and a good leather handbag. In the classroom she was no nonsense and in charge. Mrs. Vondy was clear that her students would not pass if we did not participate fully, complete all readings and assignments on time, if we plagiarized or allowed others to do our work, and if we missed more than three classes. Her syllabus was clear and her directions were precise, what to read when, what assignments were due when, when exams were, and how she would grade.
After the first class a third of the students dropped out. By the last day classes could be dropped, the class was half if its original twenty–six students, especially after she called out one student for plagiarism and two others for submitting work that was not their own. After I turned in my first assignment, Mrs. Vondy invited me to her office hour and we talked for nearly two hours. She told me my spelling and grammar were horrible, but my writing was very promising, that she would continue to mark my errors in red, but I was to never let my educational deficits or another’s opinion stop me from writing or diminish me as a writer.
In our last office hour, Elizabeth Vondy admitted that the learning environment for lack students at LSU was set up to confuse, dehumanize and fail us, and blatantly advantage white students. I believed her. She suggested I find a better learning environment for myself. Elizabeth Vondy’s words helped me make sense of my learning experience at LSU and the larger experience of making sense of the sexism, classism, and racism outside of the segregated black communities I had grown up in, as well as inside of pseudo–integrated equal ones. I took her advice, transferred to Southern University in New Orleans a traditionally black university. Elizabeth Vondy’s example of a teacher’s responsibility and accountability to and for their students bonded me to her for all my life.
Three teaching philosophies and practices that inform my vision, structuring, support of powerful and productive writing practices. The first teaching philosophy and practice I embraced for teaching was Each–One–Teach–One ,an African American educational philosophy. This practice began during slavery when educating a slave was a crime. Slaves who learned to read and write subversively shared that knowledge with slaves who did not have any access to learning. They engaged in learning and teaching knowing the consequences could be death.
The practice of Each-One-Teach-One continued from slavery through the Civil War, Reconstruction, and Civil Rights eras in the U. S. This philosophy, value, and practice was taught in African American churches, schools, and around kitchen tables of my childhood, and those of my parents, and grandparents. The Each–One–Teach–One Philosophy and values taught that the education earned by a black person did not belong to them alone; the education and achievement was shared by the entire community; and it was the duty and privilege of those who earned an education to teach others. Each–One–Teach–One, also taught that people who had less formal education, even those who were illiterate, were in fact intelligent, skilled, and knowledgeable, and they too had the duty and obligation to share their knowledge and skills. This philosophy’s core value and practice taught that all black people had something to teach and formal education, achieved and shared, was the most prized and respected of accomplishments. When I looked to find citations for this philosophy and practice, I found brief mention of this concept ascribed to a white southern missionary, Frank Laubach. I claim authority and witness to its origins, teachings, and functions inside Southern African American communities, and my lived experience inside those communities.
The second teaching philosophy I reach for when thinking about teaching practices is Paulo Freire. I was introduced to the writings of Freire during my MSW training at Tulane University. I was particularly attracted to his idea for a model of education based on the liberation of those being taught. In Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Freire insisted that Western education forced teachers into the role of forcing students to become receptors of colonization. In his analysis, teachers were colonizers and oppressors, while students were the colonized and oppressed. Freire called this type of education, “banking education.” Freire proposed a “problem–posing education” that could be a function of liberation and a practice of freedom. Freire defined the “problem posing education model.”
The teacher is no longer merely the–one–who–teaches,
but one who is himself taught in dialogue with the
students, who in turn while being taught also teach.
They become jointly responsible for a process in
which they all grow. (61)
Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed acted like a battering ram against the racist educational regimes I had been subjected to and had been resisting during my education and training. Freire’s writing resonated with my cultural educational heritage of each–one–teach–one and thrust me further into deconstructing race and class.
The third teaching philosophy I reach for is the feminist perspective of the teachings of Bell Hooks. In Teaching to Transgress, Bell Hooks, while crediting and honoring Freire, also addressed the major issue he did not address: women, their power and value, and the importance of their liberation to the liberation of all. In “Engaged Pedagogy,” Hooks writes about how the teaching ways of Freire and the Vietnamese Buddhist Monk Thich Nhat Hanh informed her progressive–holistic–engaged–feminist pedagogy.
Thich Nhat Hanh always speaks of the teacher as healer.
Like Freire, his approach to knowledge called on students
to be more active participants, to link awareness with practice.
Whereas Freire was primarily concerned with the mind, Thich Nhat Hanh offered a way of thinking about pedagogy which emphasized wholeness, a union of mind, body, and spirit. His focus on a holistic approach to learning and spiritual practice enabled me to overcome years of socialization that had taught me to believe a classroom was diminished if students and professors regarded each other as “whole” human beings striving not just for knowledge in books, but knowledge about how to live in the world. (14)
In Teaching to Transgress, Bell Hooks combines the theories of liberation education, education as a holistic practice, and feminist theories applied to education to formulate her own didactic. Progressive, holistic, “engaged pedagogy” is more demanding than conventional critical or feminist pedagogy. For unlike these two teaching practices, engaged pedagogy emphasizes well–being. That means that teachers must be actively committed to a process of self–actualization that promotes their own well–being if they are to teach in a manner that empowers students. (15)
My early teachers taught me that each student must also teach, teachers must be available for and open to being taught, teacher’s capacities to succeed and excel are directly correlated with their levels of compassion and professional accountability, their commitment to education as a practice of liberation, and education informed by the practices of feminist, progressive, and holistic engaged teaching and learning practices.
I am embracing my success in gifting myself with the writer’s life I have hungered for and needed. I have pursued advanced learning. I have filled a writing tool box with excellent experience and skills. I have completed two books that I’m moving toward publication. I have a daily personal writing and wellness practice. I am launching a service to provide writing wellness and teaching services to encourage, support, and celebrate the creative health and success of other writers and artists. I am truly fortunate and joyfully living a writer’s life.