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A Place at the Table

Young, black, female and fine, they see themselves as the "new face of knowledge" in academia. No wonder they found one another and started becoming a familiar table of four.

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Honoree Fanonne Jeffers, an assistant professor of English at the University of Oklahoma, came to Pittsburgh last fall as a visiting lecturer for the University of Pittsburgh's English department. Raised in North Carolina and Georgia, Jeffers is a nationally recognized poet who paints vivid pictures of Southern black folk culture in her two books, The Gospel of the Barbecue and Outlandish Blues. She's won numerous awards for her poetry and has just finished her third book. Her mother is Trellie Jeffers, a university dean who once taught Alice Walker, while her father Lance Jeffers was a Black Arts Movement poet who's been published with such giants as Amiri Baraka, Sonia Sanchez and Haki Madhubuti. Jeffers is scheduled to return to Oklahoma in May.

On arriving in Pittsburgh:
"Toi Derricotte [University of Pittsburgh English professor] called me and asked me to come to Pitt as a visiting writer and I actually didn't know if I would do it. I told her, ‘Well, I already have a job,' but then I was told how prestigious it is to be asked to do something like this so I called her back and said, ‘Yes, I will do it,' and that's how I got here."







Faith Adiele is a creative nonfiction professor at Pitt who arrived in Pittsburgh from Iowa last winter. After completing her undergrad at Harvard, Adiele ventured away to Northern Thailand, where in practicing to become a Buddhist nun she lived in a forest temple enduring 19-hour ritual meditations and surviving on single daily meals. Her memoirs from that time are captured in her new book Meeting Faith: The Forest Journals of a Black Buddhist Nun. She's also featured in the PBS documentary The Journey Home for her experience that led her to becoming Thailand's first African-American Buddhist nun. Both the book and film premiered this month, and for these "Faith-based initiatives" Adiele has dubbed April the "month of Faith."

On arriving in Pittsburgh: "
Basically, I found myself newly single and without any kind of attachments. I wanted to try someplace different...a place I hadn't seen before or thought of before."







Kimberly Ellis
, an Africana Studies professor at Pitt, is a native of the Hill District whose family (which includes uncle August Wilson) was close to the deceased playwright, poet, activist and anchor of Pitt's Africana Studies, Rob Penny. After earning her Ph.D. in American Studies from Purdue University and completing professorships in English and black studies at DePauw University in Indiana, Ellis landed last fall back in her native city to fill Penny's seat, teaching his black poetry and history classes. Ellis quickly became one of the more popular professors among students, who were drawn to her ability to link Civil Rights-era and Black Power-era values to hip hop. When not teaching, she moonlights as "Dr. Goddess," reciting spoken-word poetry at showcases and slams throughout the city. Born in New York City but raised in Pittsburgh, Ellis' position at Pitt is temporary, but hopes she can find a way to remain here.

On arriving in Pittsburgh: "
I never thought that one of my dream jobs would later come through here. I had all these dreams and goals, then on top of that I was able to teach a course about my own uncle [Wilson] who had made such a great impact on Pittsburgh. To me, the universe could not have said, ‘Come back to Pittsburgh' any clearer."







Robyn Spencer
is a Carnegie Mellon University post-doctoral fellow for the school's Center for African-American Urban Studies and the Economy (CAUSE). Spencer is working on her first book, which is about the rise and fall of the Black Panther Party. Her research specialties are African-American social protest movements, South African history and African-American women freedom fighters. Before arriving here last fall, Spencer was a professor in Penn State's African and African-American Studies department. Before her arrival there, Penn State had a turbulent episode with black students receiving death threats, black people turning up dead and some black students attending graduation with bulletproof vests. Black student-led protests led to many changes in the university, such as a new Africana research center and more black professors like Spencer who are showing through their work the importance of black resistance against injustice.

On arriving in Pittsburgh: "
Coming here I couldn't wait to explore. I couldn't wait to see the art scene here and join the Black Radical Congress here and really be a part of something, anything here -- to see black faces outside of the one I see in the mirror. Pittsburgh has been all of that: a reconnection to an urban landscape. It's been having girlfriends again -- sisterfriends -- which I don't have too many of in State College."



Honoree Jeffers sits at a table in Dowe's on Ninth, her leg propped up on two black pillows. She broke her ankle a little over a week ago and has a yellow cast. Just as she finally gets comfortable in her seat at the Downtown jazz club and restaurant, her three colleagues --Dr. Robyn Spencer, Dr. Kim Ellis and Faith Adiele -- walk in with celebrity flair.
These four women -- black thirtysomethings, all well-advanced academics -- were all recruited to Pittsburgh last year to teach at Pittsburgh universities, but their confluence here came largely as a surprise to each. After learning of one another they began -- no one remembers exactly when -- meeting regularly over dinner at various soul-food restaurants. And though they knew of each other somewhat from conferences, fellowship programs and chance encounters at airports, none of them knew they'd all be landing in Pittsburgh at the same time. Such meetings -- part gabfests and part political debate -- are numbered, though: In May, two of them will return to their permanent appointments.

After greetings, Adiele and Ellis -- who've come directly from teaching class -- scurry to the bathroom while Spencer slips gracefully into her seat. Re-appearing moments later from the bathroom, Ellis heads straight for Dowe's stage, where she primps and poses behind a microphone stand to her colleagues' delight. Ellis is the youngest of the team, but the most outspoken and loudest-laughing. Adiele makes the loudest statements with her funky fashion: spiky red-dyed hair and a suede black-fringed coat. Spencer's locks are pulled back, and she wears a plain light denim jacket and an African-print sarong. Jeffers is chair-bound yet still vivacious in violet cashmere sweater and silky hair.

Jeffers begins joking with Spencer about their uncanny resemblance to the HBO Sex in the City cast. Unlike those four New York City girls, though, this bunch ain't talking about sex. Sitting down for what could be their last dinner together, Jeffers kicks her leg up, Adiele kicks her shoes off, Spencer kicks up her usually soft-spoken voice and Ellis kicks the conversation off …

Kim Ellis
: Robyn and I first bonded at the airport. We were on our way to the Ford Foundation Institute's Engendering Africana Studies [conference] at Cornell University. We didn't want to make any assumptions about any black person going to Ithaca, New York, so I didn't ask her. I was there with a close friend.

Robyn Spencer
: They were cutting up in the airport! Then they were randomly searched, as so many black women are.

Ellis
: Yeah, but we laughed about it. I remember a whistle-blowing incident in Atlanta about continued harassment of black women at airports, so me and my girlfriend had a long-standing joke that we would say, "Please not me," and it just so happens she got caught. Robyn saw that she and I were giggling about it like we were fifth-graders. You have to laugh. As hard as it can be, life is very funny.

*****

Honoree Jeffers: I'm 37 this July. I know some women don't like to talk about their age. I'm happy to be going into my late 30s. I feel like I've grown as a woman and hopefully in wisdom, although this [leg cast] might contradict me. I guess if I didn't have some accomplishments then I'd be scared, because I'm unmarried and I don't have children, and I don't want to have children. I adore children -- other people's children. I see myself as child-free as opposed to childless.

Ellis
: I don't have any issues with my age. I have an issue with the constant interaction with students regarding my age. I first [taught] when I was 21 and I had students that were 26, 27 and 28 years old. So what happens when you're in the classroom and your students are much older? I just pushed age out of the classroom.

Faith Adiele
: I look very young as well, and people are always like, "Well, how old are you?" It seems to me that people are trying to work something out about my credentials, so that just makes me determined not to tell anybody [my age].

Spencer
: Yeah, but it's like saying that if you have a name like Kwame or Sharifa that that will invite more racism on you, which may be true. But if you have a name like Buffy or Biff then you'll still face those same things. That's why I say I don't care, because what people are trying to figure out about me is not going to change if they actually know what my age is.

Jeffers
: It's like the grandfather clause they had down South when you went to vote and they asked a black person, "Can you interpret the Constitution?" Then they bring out a piece of French literature. Then it's, "Well, can you read Spanish?" And as the old joke goes, finally they bring out a list of Chinese characters and they ask, "What does this mean?" And the black person says, "It means you're not gonna let me vote." My mother is a post-menopausal black woman and people still question her authority because her face is not a face of knowledge.

Ellis
: I can agree with that. I definitely feel that being black and being female trumps your age on any day in terms of we're not the face of knowledge. I really get giddy when I walk into a classroom on the first day and I see faces light up with either pleasure, surprise, confusion or absolute bewilderment because they think that their professor is supposed to be an older white male. I come in and I'm a young black female and I'm sassy and sharp -- and fine too -- so they don't know how to deal with that.

Adiele
: Really? Even teaching [Africana] studies?

Ellis
: Oh yeah!

Spencer
: Oh yeah!

Ellis
: Because if it's not an older white male, then it's an older black male.

Jeffers
: I taught at [a historically black college] and got far less respect than the white male [professors] did.

*****

Jeffers
: This shows how sheltered my background has been, but [until I met local poet Gerald Stern] I had never really encountered a Jewish person who was that radical about Jewish identity. It was fabulous and I was like OK, wow! Other people do this too!

Spencer
: One thing about New York is you're always aware of Jewish holidays. It seems that the Jewish community has done an excellent job of bringing their issues of discrimination to the forefront. I never hear people talking about being exhausted of hearing about yet another cry of anti-Semitism like they talk about yet another annoying self-obsessed black person bringing up racism.



Ellis: Today in class we were discussing what the material legacy of slavery was. I asked, "Well, what did you learn when you were in high school about slavery?" Most of them said they didn't learn that much, maybe a paragraph or two in their books. I said, "OK, but how many of you read an actual slave narrative in high school?" Nobody. Nobody in my class, and they're all from diverse areas both inside and outside of Pittsburgh. But then I couldn't help myself. "How many of you read The Diary of Anne Frank in high school?" They all raised their hands. Don't you think that's interesting, since slavery is one of the major pieces in American history, not just African-American history? It is at least the primary motivator of the Civil War. It is the primary point of contention among blacks and whites in this country, and the irony is the Jewish Holocaust didn't even occur in this country.

Jeffers
: It's also a legacy of integration. My mother read slave narratives when she was in a segregated, literally one-room, schoolhouse in Eatonville, Georgia. I could say it's a result of the integration of the school system and the taking out of black teachers particularly from the black community that kept them from being able to read those kinds of things.

Ellis
: What bothers me is that I could walk into a classroom right now and I can talk about Walt Whitman's or Emily Dickinson's poetry. I can talk about civil disobedience and Henry David Thoreau's influence on Martin Luther King. Yet why can't you discuss a slave narrative? They say, "Oh, we don't have black teachers," but we're educators; we're supposed to be educating. White educators get to hang onto saying, "Well, I just don't know that." And that's not fair because I didn't know Thoreau, I didn't know Dickinson before I was exposed to them.

Jeffers
: No, but when you got a community that is now celebrating Tupac [Shakur] as a poet, it's time for us to get back to tradition. One of the things about a post-modern society is doing away with traditions, and so that has something to do with it. Teaching at the University of Oklahoma, most of the white kids I teach have not heard of Thoreau or Whitman.

Spencer
: People are celebrating Tupac as a poet because that's the level of education and learning that they're getting. The streets have become a valid and primary site of learning for many people, and not just for young African Americans but also for whites.

Ellis
: I don't have any problem with Tupac. Tupac definitely continues the legacy of our tradition, but I don't like that someone can know Tupac and not know Phyliss Wheatley. Now that is a problem.

Jeffers
: Tupac Shakur was convicted of sexual assault so I find that deeply disturbing that [we] would be so enamored by him. I'm glad he's dead. That's one more rapist dead. I think what we're looking for in the black community is heroes, and we're willing to put the crown of hero or messiah on any poobah coming up because we're wanting to be saved. I don't see anything in his work, anything in his legacy that speaks to salvation. Or love.

Spencer
: I don't have an affinity to Shakur's work but I do see him as symbolic of what for many people is their reality: the young black urban male experience.

Jeffers
: It's not our only reality.

Spencer
: I think that what you're talking about is the white media's obsession with the specific urban concept. But when black people talk about "the urban," we know that it's connected to the rural because we came from there. There in fact is a dialogue going on right now about a reverse migration of people from urban areas back to the South.

Jeffers
: I grew up in Atlanta, which was totally different until this reverse migration. Now it's similar to New York. They are out-pricing poor people, they are moving them to the fringes of the city. You can't even afford to buy groceries.

Ellis
: I don't think it's African Americans in particular who are so overly romanticizing the urban northern experience. I mean, that's part of the reason why they're leaving. Nobody likes poverty.

Jeffers
: You don't think it's celebrated, though? You know with the whole "ghetto fabulous" thing and "keeping it real"?

Ellis
: "Ghetto fab" is nothing more than the new nouveaux riche. White Americans in general have gone through that with their Golden Era, the Jazz Age. P. Diddy is nothing more than The Great Gatsby of our era, and white folks have gone through the showing off of the new material wealth and that's what ghetto fabulousness is all about.

Jeffers
: And you think that poor black people who listen to that really comprehend The Great Gatsby and all of that?

Ellis
: All they have to do is look at P. Diddy or look at Jay-Z and look at people who are running their own companies and have gotten up out of poverty. They do celebrate them. They do want to be like them, and it's not because they live in the urban north. It's because they have normalized themselves to a certain level where they no longer have to scrape up for rent or they don't have to feel inferior about their clothes. They can do for their children like no one from the Civil Rights and Black Power eras could ever do in a material or real manner.

Spencer
: There's something about "ghetto fabulous." It's a word that has come to describe something pathologized and that's an essential part of the black community: our flamboyance for clothing. I don't think people who live in ghettos use the word "ghetto" as much as people who don't live in or have never been to a so-called ghetto. In a lot of ways there's a particular moment where our negative situations are being commodified, repackaged and we're purchasing them. That's part of the problem.

*****

Adiele
: Earlier on [in my life] I just felt that the conversations were really simplistic: Either you were down for the black community [or not] and by being down, it meant you were down for...male empowerment. One of my reasons for [going] to Thailand was about not being able to operate in that kind of paradox where it's an either/or. It's like, can I move into a place where I have this de-racialized experience to figure out what the hell is going on with me without that pressure and deal with myself from the inside out, as opposed to all the things projected on me? I don't feel those pressures anymore.

Spencer
: My sense of blackness has always been very international. We were Catholic. There was nothing black about our church. There was no gospel, there was no soul food, there was none of that in my upbringing. Yet I knew I was having this very black experience. I grew up in an all-black neighborhood that was very diverse with a significant number of East Indians. Diversity in our communities often gets minimized. My husband is from Africa and me being Caribbean, we have a real broad sense of the black community and what it is, what the norms are, what the language sounds like, what it means to "talk black." I mean, that could mean with a Nigerian accent or with a Deep South accent.

Ellis
: I take issue with people who tell me I can't romanticize about Africa. Every time I turn on a television you can't tell me Florida is not romanticized, Los Angeles is not romanticized. Why can't I have a piece of fantasy about Africa? It's beautiful. So is Miami, so are all these places -- especially in the Caribbean where they rarely show the people, they just show the water and the trees. I just think it's half-time for those of us who are post-Civil-Rights, post-Black-Power-youth. I'm looking forward to opening ourselves up to re-definition and re-introductions to ourselves and what it means to be black.

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