From Wakanda to Gettysburg

The CrisisSince I saw Black Panther (twice), I have been ruminating on Killmonger’s final words “Nah, bury me in the ocean with my ancestors that jumped from the ships. Because they knew death was better than bondage.” When I heard this quote for the first time, I was nearly sobbing. It gave me a great sadness to think of my ancestors who clearly did not jump into the ocean, or else I wouldn’t be here. It brought to mind the great weight of slavery that those of us still bear, generations later.

And yet…the more I thought about it, the angrier I became. Killmonger’s ancestors didn’t jump into the ocean, or else he wouldn’t be alive. Most African-Americans are here because our ancestors didn’t or couldn’t jump into the ocean, and those who did weren’t any braver than our actual ancestors who bore the brunt of slavery. We can’t possibly know what our ancestors did upon enslavement, how they may have fought, or tried to run away from their captors. We do know they survived, and that we are a testament to their ability to make their way through a horror that we can only imagine.

There is much to unpack in the movie Black Panther and the many emotions it evokes in those who feel an attachment to Africa or are just happy to finally have a movie that features mostly black/African characters in a positive light. Africans who can call white characters “colonizers” and who have built a society mostly untouched by European values around beauty and culture.

By chance, I also happened to read the book Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi, right after seeing Black Panther. The book evoked a whole new set of emotions in me, as I was pulled into the stories of two families of Africa, divided by an ocean, and ultimately reunited in the present day. I felt that I could finally grasp some of the rationale behind the slave trade for the Africans who were involved – and that understanding was deepened by a recent visit to the African-American Heritage Museum (AAHM) at the Smithsonian. While the colleagues I was with went for an overview of the museum, I spend most of the two hours I had there on the first level, engrossed in the stories of the European and African sides of the slave trade. The more I learned, the more I wanted to learn – how race became defined, and slavery justified, then turned into a lifelong sentence not only for the initial person enslaved, but for their offspring.

And then a seminal moment in American history – Gettysburg. Where so many died over this “peculiar institution.” President Lincoln’s short, yet influential address is often the first thought that comes to mind, and I was reminded of the following words from the address:

“It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they here gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

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I also couldn’t help but think of the individuals who fought on these fields, and lost their lives, some to save the union, others to maintain a system of chattel slavery that supported an agricultural economy that was destined to fail.

The occasion for my visit to the AAHM and Gettysburg was my son’s 8th grade spring break trip to Washington, D.C. I didn’t expect it to have such an impact on my own journey of discovery. After our visit to the battlefield, we went to a nearby historic tavern, that had been a stop on the underground railroad. The students were entertained by a very talented actor, impersonating President Lincoln. I was particularly impressed with his very clear statement that the cause of the civil war was slavery – with no equivocation. Being at a battlefield where so many had died for this cause, dining at a stop on the underground railroad, and hearing such a clear statement on the cause of the war left me deep in thought.

Particularly over the past year, I feel that I have gained a more spiritual connection to my African ancestors, those who were enslaved in the American south (Louisiana, Virginia and Georgia, best I can tell), my own parents and the trials they must have experienced being born during the Depression era. There are so many stories…including my own, that tell of a world that is much more complicated and dangerous than what I want for my sons.

So I dive deep into the history, trying to find some answers to the hate that I see on display. The brutal beatings and murders that still happen in the America of the 21st century. We dream of a Wakanda where we can be safe, but even Wakanda isn’t safe. Internal strife can divide us, as it did in the America of the 1860s. Of course, it all comes down to power, but slavery and racism is a deep, bitter poison that is still infecting the bodies politic of both sides of the Atlantic today. It is the casual institutional racism that leads to the burnout of an academic. It is the brutal system of incarceration that preys on brown bodies, attempting to maintain the racial hierarchy that fueled industry and the growth of this country for centuries.

I cannot forget Gettysburg – so many dead. The will to keep this country united. The desire of so many abolitionists to fight for the rights of my ancestors. The blood of both white and black bodies that cry out from the soil, asking if their deaths were in vain. Those of us who are still in the fight carry a heavy burden. I dream of Wakanda, but I know that I live in the country that is still bearing a burden that cannot be cast down until we truly come to grips with what we fought for and continue to fight for – what so many continue to lose their lives for. And I must find a way to go on, for my sons, and for those future generations who deserve so much more…and with so many retiring, it will be with new voices in these halls after this November where change must continue…

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College access: Improving the odds

Also posted on LinkedIn

As I toured the USC campus with my son Andrew, I couldn’t help but be excited for the opportunities that he would have as he entered college. Andrew is a junior in high school, and we began our college visits at one of his top choices. It didn’t disappoint. He was impressed with the resources, the interdisciplinary programs (he’s interested in majoring in History and Film) and the research support available to even first year students. But it was our tour guide who impressed Andrew with her enthusiasm and love of the school. The other schools we visited on that trip were also impressive, and Andrew found much to like in our tour of Los Angeles area schools.

Although I had been telling Andrew for the last year that he would love USC, it was still difficult for me, a Stanford and UCLA grad, to be on that campus. But I hope he continues to do well in school this year and gets into one of his top choices. I’m not worried, I know he will do well no matter where he goes, but as his mother, I want the best for him. I also know that he is getting the benefit of parents who are college graduates, including a mother who is a college administrator. We have gotten a head start on his college visits, we are making sure he is staying on top of all the deadlines for SAT testing, AP tests, and summer classes to show that he is college ready.

As my career has developed, I have become more concerned with issues of access and inclusion in the education arena, particularly here in Silicon Valley where issues of diversity are a constant concern. I feel like my son’s high school is a microcosm of the disparities that plague the area. My son is an example of the advantage that privilege gives on the path to college. It is not necessarily wealth that is a determining factor, but there is a difference in schools and parental knowledge that can impact the choices that students have. Many organizations are working to change the odds for students from less-privileged backgrounds. It has become clear to me that Higher Ed and K-12 need to work more closely together to help bridge the gaps and support all who want and need post-secondary education. Just as important, we need to support those students when they get in, so that they can succeed after they get in to college.

Going forward, I will be expanding on my work with organizations and companies in the area to try to tackle some of the issues that I have raised here. Much needs to be done, and it will take support from educators, non-profit organizations, industry and our political representatives to find answers that will help our students succeed in this very competitive environment. In the meantime, I will also continue to support my son in his college choices, even if it ends up being USC.

See also: OPINION: Changing the ‘narrow and sometimes elitist image of higher education’

What 2017 meant to me – the foot story

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NEVERTHELESS, SHE PERSISTED

This post goes out to my many friends who have had physical challenges this year. As a political scientist, I spend way too much time talking/writing/reading about the train wreck that is our current political situation, so I’m definitely NOT going to spend the waning hours of 2017 giving my take on the politics of the past year. Instead, I will focus on a more personal challenge that dominated my year. For those who don’t want to read to the end, the punchline is that even if you are doing everything right, sometimes you just have to be patient. There will be setbacks and new, unexpected injuries that become part of the healing process. Image may contain: one or more people

I started 2017 with my foot in a boot after having surgery on it in early December. I had learned in September of 2016 that I was born with an extra bone in my foot, and that I had accessory navicular syndrome. The extra bone had to be removed, and I also had a few other things going on, specifically, posterior tibial tendinitis and a tear of the left plantar calcaneonavicular ligament – here’s a nice animation of the second part of the surgery that repaired the spring ligament and left me with a new arch.  After being a competitive athlete most of my life, this was the first time (except for right after giving birth to my two boys) that I was completely unable to work out for a significant period of time. Even when I was having major issues with my back in my late 20s, I found alternatives to running for a while, until I was able to get back into it seriously after my second son was born in 2003. My last serious running event was in January of 2016, a 10k, and I won a medal for my age group, something I was used to doing on a regular basis.

Although I recovered well from the surgery, and graduated from physical therapy in a

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Walking the ramparts of Saint Malo in July

timely manner, I have learned over the past year that a foot injury isn’t something that goes away quickly, even if you do everything right. I did all my foot strengthening exercises, and my podiatrist was impressed with my recovery. I was able to walk all over London, Normandy and Paris with my boys this summer. I even ran/walked a 5k for my son Brandon’s school in September. I was very cautious about returning to running, mostly walking, but the general foot pain I was having began to get more specific, and eventually I could tell I was getting swelling in one of the joints close to where the bone had been removed. My left hip had begun to bother me as well, as my limp became more pronounced. A trip to the podiatrist determined that the bones in my foot were healing well, but I was having some soft tissue issues – so back to physical therapy, almost exactly a year after foot surgery.

So I have been spending the last month doing my PT exercises, walking, cycling and I just got a new rowing machine for Christmas. I have gained weight, but hope to get back into a serious nutrition routine to match my fitness routine with the start of the new year. This has been a very unusual year for me, and I’m still processing what it has meant to go from being a serious athlete to being in recovery. I know others deal with much more difficult struggles, and I count my blessings. I wonder what I should expect from myself now that I am over 50, and I can’t do many of the things that I did even in my 40s (i.e., 4 marathons, too many half marathons to keep track of, 10ks, 5ks). To what extent did the competition help define who I am?  All I know is that I will continue to pursue excellence in every aspect of my life. I will be patient with myself as I recover both physically and emotionally from a challenging year.  After all, “She was warned. She was given an explanation. Neverthelessshe persisted.” (In the end I couldn’t completely keep politics out of it 😊)

 

 

 

What next?

A year ago, reeling from an election that had gone horribly wrong, many of us were looking for ways to resist the impending storm. Things have gone as badly as expected. We await an inquiry with the hope that those who are guilty of wrongdoing will be held to account, but what will follow? I heard David Brooks on NPR today make the comment that he hoped that the current breaking of of norms would lead to a renewed push for civility, ethics and adhering to common norms again in politics. I’m skeptical, but we must continue to resist, and push for a politics that embraces all. It feels as if we are careening towards a future that excludes all but the one percenters. That cannot be a lasting equilibrium, and the kleptocratic leadership must know that – but the focus on short-term gains seems to eclipse any acknowledgement of long-term realities.

It’s not just about race, or women, or LGBTQ people. It’s about basic human decency. It’s about people being able to find housing, have access to decent healthcare without going bankrupt, about having access to education and technology. It’s about every one of us taking responsibility – it’s not a situation in which some of us can decide we don’t care about politics. Politics is life in this country – we don’t have the luxury for anyone to say they don’t care…

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It’s not about the national anthem, Rosa Parks wasn’t protesting the bus.

I posted this on Facebook after reading one too many posts that chided NFL players for not standing during the national anthem. Many people, including veterans, police officers, senators, etc…have stated their support for the right to protest. However, passions have been high – I have seen many discussions turn into rants followed by name calling. What is it about this particular issue that has led to such passionate responses? [a rhetorical question]

For many African-Americans, this is a time of heartbreak. Not particularly because of Trump – we have seen many like him in our lifetimes. No, the heartbreak comes from learning that many we consider friends, even family, have little or no empathy for the situation we are facing today. We cannot ignore the bigotry and racism that are coming to the fore, something we had hoped our children wouldn’t have to deal with.

Many who have protested the protest say that players are being disrespectful to those who have given their lives for the US and the flag. Others argue that players are privileged and don’t have a right to complain. My nephew, Anthony Givens, captured my and many others’ thoughts on this:

If you ever speak to me, or have posted about these “ungrateful” athletes disrespecting a piece of cloth, but you have never once spoken to me about the disrespect shown to the founding ideals of America by literal nazis in Charlottesville, or you have never once spoken to me about the murders of young black men that were handcuffed, on the ground, unarmed, and executed by those who we have entrusted to protect all Americans, or never once called out the systemic racism and fear that all minorities must live with everyday in a country that has a president who is the embodiment of privilege and a constant reminder of the promises that have been broken…if this is you, a person that I know, then we are done. We are and cannot even be acquaintances, much less friends anymore. There cannot be middle ground on racism and misogyny. #TakeAKnee

Whatever happened to the “Land of the Free, and the Home of the Brave?” When and where are we “allowed” to protest – if it doesn’t make you feel uncomfortable, what’s the point? I grew up in the military, my father was a 20-year man, who was greatly disrespected during his time in the military, but never lost his love for this country. We protest because we want America to live up to it’s promise. We want a country where I don’t have to worry about my boys being stopped by the police because of the color of their skin. We want a country where we can truly live free.

 

Truths to be told

[This blog has been picked up by Inside Higher Ed and posts can be found there]

The news that my friend and colleague Mark Sawyer was gone made me feel like all of the air had left the room. I was suddenly pulled back into memories from over 20 years ago when we were grad students attending conferences, competing to see who would land the top jobs, and supporting each other in our choice to study comparative, rather than “just” American politics. As fate would have it, Mark would start his job at UCLA as I was leaving to start my first job at University of Washington. Over the years our paths would cross, and I could understand the challenges Mark faced in his new department, given that I had so recently worked with many of his colleagues and was truly impressed with his commitment to starting the subfield of Race, Ethnicity and Politics in the department and ultimately UCLA’s African-American studies department. He brought in and mentored students creating a supportive environment that I hadn’t know many years before.

When I started graduate school in UCLA’s poli-sci department in 1993 there were very few black students, including my good friends Vince Hutchings and Maria Niles. Maria moved on to Chicago, where she became friends with Mark, and it’s likely that she was responsible for connecting us when we were still graduate students (my memory of that time is a bit hazy). We created a community of friends who supported each other through the program as we struggled, married, moved to new locations and a few of us finished and got jobs. Vince went to Michigan in 1997 and at that time there was a dearth of black scholars in top poli-sci programs. I always knew I would be an anomaly as a black Europeanist, in any case. We didn’t really remark on it at the time, it’s just the way things were.

We have all faced many stresses and challenges in our careers, whether as academics or other professions. As I have reflected on my experiences, I have wondered how much of my outward success reflects the unseen struggles I have faced as a black woman in a world that wasn’t made for me. In light of Mark’s struggles and his ultimate passing, is it helpful for those who have “made it” to talk about how we have dealt with anxiety, disappointment, department politics, etc.? Not everyone is in a position to share these types of issues and now that I am a provost, I don’t have to worry about department politics. Also, as my friend Josh Busby recently wrote in a blog post “Ideas and understanding the way the world works and how it could be are a noble service. I’m no longer as sanguine that the arc of the moral universe moves in the ways that I want it to, but I’m not going to stop trying from making a contribution. That is the only way to live.” (http://duckofminerva.com/2017/04/lets-talk-about-mental-health.html) – let this be a small contribution…although this is only a very small part of the story.

A quick look at my CV would indicate a very successful career. Books with Cambridge and Oxford university presses, articles in the top comparative politics journals, edited volumes and students who have gotten tenure track jobs. In 2003 I helped start a Center for European Studies at UT Austin and became director in 2004. I worked with my department chair and the Center for African and African-American Studies to recruit new faculty and for a short period of time we had 6 black faculty. I was able to help recruit one black student, Ernest McGowen, who is now a tenured professor at University of Richmond.

In 2006, my first year in rank as an associate professor, I was named Vice Provost for Undergraduate Curriculum and International Affairs. I stepped down from that position in 2009 with the blessing of my dean, department chair and the provost so that I could focus on getting promoted to full professor – and they all pledged their support in that endeavor.  I was given a year of sabbatical which allowed me to focus on my research, but it was also the last year of my mother’s life and the year that my brother-in-law was diagnosed with stage IV kidney cancer. In 2010 my mother passed away, my dean told me that I was losing my research support and couldn’t get it back without an outside offer, and the university began facing a series of budget cuts that would lead to no raises for those of us already in the higher salary ranges, meaning 6 years of no raises for me.

It was at that point that I knew the research I was completing would be my last. As I was working to finish my book and other research with my students I explored the possibility of staying in Austin but working in the community. I joined nonprofit boards, started my own organization and explored the business world, but I hit many “cement” ceilings in Austin (my friend Ellen Sweets captures much of what I won’t miss about Austin here). The possibility for other faculty jobs was limited with a weak job market and a CV that made me a prime candidate for a quick move into an admin position. I worked hard to complete my book so that I could be promoted to full professor (and I should note that I’m pretty sure I was the first black person to get tenure and full professor in the Government dept. at UT) – despite the skepticism of my departmental colleagues who wanted me to wait (for what?). In the end my only goal was to get promoted so I could get out.

Part of my desire to move on was the fact that I was tired of the “hamster wheel” of having to constantly work on that next book or article and never feeling like you had the time to develop long-term projects. I decided I might as well go back into admin where there were leadership opportunities and the possibility of a raise for the first time in many years. My husband didn’t really want to move, so I consulted with my former provost, dean and other mentors and all agreed that my best opportunities were going to be anywhere but Austin. It was telling to me that when I was promoted to Vice Provost in 2006 there were at least 9 black women in leadership positions at UT Austin. When I left there was 1.

I felt like I was pushed out of poli-sci, and had few options outside of administration for furthering my career, despite my accomplishments in the study of European politics, immigration and populism. However, I’m living where I want to live, in a job that I love, and I’m present with my family. I don’t miss the rat-race of research, or the departmental politics, where the work that I did wasn’t valued.

More to come…

 

 

Fuel for running – and life

It’s been a while since I have blogged, life has been hectic as I prepare to move from Austin to the San Francisco Bay area – I’ll be the new Provost at Menlo College starting in July. As always, running is one of the ways I deal with stress, and I’ll be running a 5k this evening, the Trail Foundation’s Margarita Run. Given that it will be hot, humid and I’m tired from traveling, I have to think carefully about how I will prepare myself for tonight’s run. For me there are four distinct phases of fueling a run. The first is what I eat for my regular meals. I try to avoid running on empty – I always eat something before a race, and I’m blessed with a digestive system that can handle almost anything before a run. When I ran track in college, I would always be in the first event of the day, the long jump, and the last, the 4×400 relay, so I learned early on that I had to be able to eat and run.

These days, if it’s a morning run, I’ll often eat some yogurt and/or a banana, and for the second phase of my run, the actual run itself, it depends on how far I am going. If I’m running more than an hour, I always take water, and some gel, chew or other type of fuel. I used to drink a lot of Gatorade, but found that I wanted to control my water vs sugar intake a bit better, depending on the heat and humidity.

In many ways, I find that music is another way to fuel my run, so I’ll call it the third phase.  I usually listen to dance music to keep me going. Songs by Michael Jackson, Prince, or the latest pop or R&B is fine, I’m usually into my head so that I’m mostly focused on the beat.  I don’t always use music, only for longer runs. If I’m running less than an hour, I like to use the time to work through problems in my head, or just zone out for a while.

The fourth phase of my run is recovery, which starts with stretching and some drills to strengthen problem areas. This is also where I usually treat myself to a hot chai latte, or hot chocolate. I use almond milk instead of cow’s milk, but it gives me the protein and carbs my muscles need to recover from a run. I will sometimes take supplements that help with recovery if I’m training intensively, but I haven’t done a marathon in a while, and I’m sticking mainly with 5ks and 10ks with the occasional half marathon thrown in. I find that if I have been doing my training right, the recovery from these types of races isn’t much of a problem.

I always have to keep in mind that I am getting older (50!) and I have always paid attention to my back issues, meaning I have to make sure that I have strong abs. I switch up my cross training on a regular basis to keep myself from getting bored, and train different types of muscles. I have all the tools I need at home to do a variety of workouts, including kettle bells, dumb bells, a medicine ball, and I’ll even do some hula hoop when it’s nice out. I focus on my abs with some pilates, yoga and just plain old fashioned push ups and sit ups. Every few years I’ll meet with a personal trainer to get some training tips and learning the latest ideas on staying in shape.

Overall, I find that it’s important to maintain a regular workout routine to keep my energy levels up during the day, reduce stress, and to sleep well at night. I look at running as important to both my physical and mental well being. I need fuel to keep running, but running and working out is my fuel for life.

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When I'm running well-fueled I feel like Wonder Woman!
When I’m running well-fueled I feel like Wonder Woman!