Let Me Explain...
by Candace Allen
On February 6th, Lillian approached me with the opportunity to speak at the Anderson Gala about the experiences of black women on our campus. If I am honest I was hesitant, but also honored, so I agreed. I was cautious about speaking on the experiences of black women on our campus, partly because I know my own is not all-encompassing, and also because I knew who my audience would be. I resolved not to see this opportunity as a burden and remembered that explanations will always outweigh assumptions, especially when the purpose of the explanation is to start a conversation.
That in mind, on February 17th, I stood before an audience of my peers and poured my heart out to them in the most authentic way I knew how. We were there to commemorate the Kickoff Celebration of the 125th Anniversary of women on our campus, and I was to speak on the representation and experiences of Black women at the University of Alabama. Quelling an invisible fear I refused to show, I stood before an audience of primarily white faces and opened my speech by explaining the significance of celebrating our milestones as they come to us.
“As we celebrate the 125th anniversary of women on our campus, I can’t help but consider the anniversaries of others that come much later, in numbers such as 62 years since Autherine Lucy Foster, 50 years of the Black Student Union, 30 years of the Women and Gender Resource Center, and 7 months for our Vice Provost of Diversity Equity and Inclusion. These numbers pale in comparison to 125, largely due to the intersections of race and sex that affected those whom we now hail as trailblazers and influencers.”
I highlighted just a few overlooked and diminished anniversaries that mean so much to the marginalized communities on our campus. I did not do this to diminish the celebration of the 125th, but rather to add to its credibility by acknowledging that while everyone was not included in the past for various reasons, by bringing more voices to the table we can move forward with a much more inclusive outlook. Over a month later, I’ve had time to elaborate on what I was really attempting to do with this statement. By placing milestones I deemed important in juxtaposition with the 125th Anniversary of women, I was attempting to make these things matter to the group of people looking back at me in the most polite and rational way I knew how. I used the words of Sojourner Truth to tether the experiences of womanhood to my own intersectional identity and drew them in with a question,
“because that man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. And ain't I a woman?”
I chose this particular quote because I felt that it highlights a pivotal part of the experiences of African American women in spaces such as the University of Alabama. That our identities are intersectional, but societally some parts of our identity are felt more than others, an assessment that can be deemed true for any combination of identifying factors outside of the norm. Our individual identifying characteristics have a lot to do with the way we experience the world. Whether it be race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender, socioeconomic status, ability status etc. our lives are impacted by these characteristics simultaneously instead of experiencing each one individually. In the case of black women, I explained that “When I think of what it means to be a black woman in this space, I am hard-pressed to think of any other people group that so deeply and transformatively feels the burden of the intersectionality of their identities. We are pressured to be both hyper visible and invisible in a space that never quite feels all our own.” This personal truth comes on the heels of five wonderful years spent here at this university, that have not always been perfect, and in which I have experienced discrimination in different forms, but also found ways to overcome it and people to support me as I tried to make positive changes for those who will follow in my footsteps.
The room is silent, yet I continue on because my next truth is a narrative often untouched when it comes to topics surrounding marginalized groups on our campus. In times of unrest or confusion, we can sometimes focus so much on the group we perceive as being in the “wrong” that we fail to tell our allies how to be just that. In my heart I believe that this was the truth of many of those in the room with me that night. I looked back at faces that were familiar to me, students I had worked with throughout the years, administrators who have worked for change, and my own friends who were so very proud of me, even before I opened my mouth. No one in this room is my enemy, and yet I genuinely wanted to explain to them what others had not. Feeling the warmth of tears on my face, I continued with this,
“Our past, while shameful and hurtful to many members of our community, is NOT our legacy. In order to change the narrative and the identity of our campus, in order to become an institution recognized for tolerance instead of hate, we must choose to break down barriers, even those we benefit from, for the sake of the greater good. We must be willing to be uncomfortable, for the sake of our own education, and we must be willing to be honest with ourselves about our responses to the experiences of the marginalized and silenced voices. I am thankful for those of you who have served as allies, those of you who have continuously embarked on the search for truth, and those of you who have never hesitated to speak up for what it right because at all times these roles are necessary, and it is never too late to take them up.”
With these words I aimed to inspire change, promote self-reflection, and give honest feedback on things that must change before the reputation of our university and campus community is going to. As I closed, so many of the faces smiling back at me were filled with emotion in a way that not only surprised, but humbled me. There was much to be learned from this occasion, and I hope my peers learned as much from me as I did in preparing to speak to them. While there were plenty of ways I could have gone about speaking on the experiences of black women, it would have all been for nothing if my presentation was abrasive and accusatory towards those who were open and accepting of my commentary. Those of us who are placed in positions to educate and explain must assess the true intentions of our audience and meet them where they are, respecting their effort while also helping them to acknowledge and understand their place, both in times of unrest and in times of celebration. For this reason, I actively celebrate the 125th Anniversary of Women, just as my peers have supported me in celebrating the return of Autherine Lucy Foster to our campus and the 50th Anniversary of the Black Student Union, recognizing that no one celebration takes from another, but that they can all work together for the greater good.