The Kiese Laymon Book Club: Part One
Your professor, Dr. Vincent T. Harris of Birmingham, Alabama, has asked me to write to you and speak with you on the following statement,
Black Men Matter because Black Women Matter.
Schedules, algorithms, and interests have brought you all together in this unique space and time. And now, it is my time to join you on this journey to ponder the statement,
Black Men Matter because Black Women Matter.
In your English composition classes, you have been taught that in titles of major works, minor words i.e. conjunctions should not be capitalized. You have also been taught that in formal writing, sentences should not begin with the word, because. However, in this statement given to me by Dr. Harris,
Black Men Matter because Black Women Matter,
I believe the most important word in this sentence is, because. In the English language, because is a conjunction. A conjunction is a word used to connect clauses, sentences, or to coordinate words in the same clause. The word, because entered the English language in the late 14th century. The Old English phrase, by cause, was intended to model the Old French phrase, par cause. By is a preposition that when joined with the noun cause activates the word because which then takes on the meaning by cause, for the reason of.
With an understanding of the etymology of the word because, this statement can take a new shape,
black men matter BECAUSE black women matter.
Centering because in this statement allows us to have a metaphysical conversation that is not bound by space and time but instead wraps itself in the complexity of spacetime. Because when because is centered, I, Berlisha R. Morton, PhD, of Decatur, Georgia, am not bound to share stories of heterosexual pain and heartbreak. I am a cis-gendered Black woman from the Dirty South; I have several if not plenty of stories of how the Black men in my life have done me wrong. And I am sure you all would love to hear my affirmations of pain, disappointment, abuse, let down, tragedy, and trauma that have come from the hearts, minds, and bodies of the Black men in my life. However, because we have because, I can take you all on a walk through because. Because allows us to have a conversation in which we work together and try to figure out how Black men and Black women have been joined by cause, for the reason of this American experiment. This walk through because cannot start at the beginning because the beginning is too complicated. So, I will begin at the end. And maybe, by the time we get to the beginning, we will understand the end. And maybe somewhere in between, we will see the by cause, for the reason of, the essential, because.
because of Jason
I was supposed to be teaching English at the community college to reconnect with my roots. Instead, I gave a young Black man a D on his first paper in The Black Women and Literature class of Spring 2018 because I thought he was guilty of plagiarism. By that time in my life, I had spent fifteen years engaged with the American educational system in some form or fashion as a professional or professional student (depending on who you ask). I had always worked with underserved or under resourced youth i.e. poor or low wealth Black, Brown, and white children in urban and rural areas. That was until I got my first professor job at Colgate University of Hamilton, New York. One day, I was using my food stamp card to buy snacks for the students of the Upward Bound Program of Louisiana State University of Baton Rouge, Louisiana for their road trip to Disney World because the program director thought it was okay to give students stale potato chips because it was better than what they had at home. The next day, I was using my Colgate University credit card to buy all-you-can-eat pizza, wings, and drinks for a random Tuesday night program. For the first time in my professional life, I had access to any and every resource I needed to teach young people that had access to any and every resource they needed to be successful. Myself and my Black, Brown, and white students of humble means may not have ridden around Hamilton of New York in Porsche SUVs and maxed out Hummers, but we were able to drink the alkalized water of privilege and eat all the shrimp cocktail we wanted. We could also take the shrimp cocktail home if we wanted to because there was always more than enough at Colgate University.
But I was unhappy. Being unhappy was not the problem. I had gotten used to being unhappy. Unhappiness was a part of my identity. Happy people were chosen by God to lead normal, Facebook perfect lives of peace and serenity. Unhappiness was my birthright. Unhappy people were given burdens by God so we could go work in the places where there was never enough with people that never had enough. Unhappiness was the Vicks salve that masked our noses from the rancid smells of pain, heartbreak, and disappointment which filled the places where there was never enough with the people that never had enough. Unhappy people were raised by the people that worked from can’t see to can’t see, and then struck matches on their calloused heels and lit candles to work some more. Our bodies filled the gaps; our bodies were never enough, but they provided enough to show these young people that anything is possible with hard work and determination. Their graduations, scholarships, poetry, choreography, and joy provided enough echoes of happiness to provide the energy necessary to go work in places that never had enough with people that never had enough. Because being unhappy was not the problem.
It was the way in which I was unhappy. Even amid the wealth and privilege at Colgate, I still managed to find spaces that did not have enough with people that did not have enough. But they were not enough to fill a void that was growing in my spirit. I felt like I needed to go back to my roots. I felt like I was needed somewhere else. I felt like I needed to take the methods I used to teach in the place that had more than enough back to the place where there was never enough. And when Donald J. Trump, of Queens, New York was elected President of the United States of America, I felt like I needed to go back to my roots. I felt like I needed to go teach at a community college in the inner city. I felt like I needed to go teach at Bunker Hill Community College of Charlestown, Massachusetts. When I went to my interview and saw people of all ages and of all races standing in the financial aid line, I felt like I found home again.
Three months prior to that interview, I concluded three years of teaching white pre-service teachers that it was not their job to go to places that did not have enough believing that they were the saviors of Black, Brown, and poor white children. They were to enter places ready to receive the lessons the space provided. That was the job. To learn, to see, to receive; but not to present their whiteness as a magic carpet ride out of the places that never had enough. But, at Bunker Hill Community College, by the cause of my magic carpet being sown with Black love, unhappiness, and Toni Morrison, I felt like my magic carpet was the answer. I was there to teach Black Women and Literature. I was there to save lives. I was there to enlighten. I was there to maybe not be unhappy.
The Black Women and Literature class of Fall of 2017 provided so many echoes of happiness that I forgot that no two classes are the same and that it is hard for lightning to strike twice. It made me forget that winter was coming. It made me forget that magic carpets can unravel. It made me forget that echoes of happiness are only echoes and not the source. So, when I sat down to grade the first set of papers of The Black Women and Literature class of Spring 2018, I read a paper that was too good. This paper was so good that I forgot how angry I was when a white and male colleague asked me to read me excerpts from papers of male athletes that had previously been enrolled in my class to ask “if this seems like something they would write because the writing is too good.” Of course, taking race and gender classes with me could never improve the writing of some white and male hockey player from rural Michigan. This paper was so good that I forgot how infuriated I was when my department chair stormed into my office unannounced to tell me that my teaching evaluations were “too good...too many students are writing about how you changed their lives and not enough about content and the department.” Of course, the “We” in the department’s tagline that “We Are The Department that Changes Lives” did not apply to me and my scholarship. Only white people with magic carpets can change lives; my body was there to fill in the gaps. I had forgotten these things when I read a paper that was "too good" to be written by a Black and male athlete. But this paper did make me remember several things.
I remembered the papers I had written for Black men over the years when I was in school and out of school. I remembered the extra master’s degree I have in Educational Leadership from completing my ex-husband’s course work. I remembered my then husband sending me to go see his thesis advisor in an empty classroom at Southern University of Baton Rouge, Louisiana. I remembered sitting in the low student’s desk while his thesis advisor sat on top of the professor’s desk and spread his legs as far as they could go. I remembered having to smile and be gracious and pretend that I was talking to him and not his crotch when I got him to accept my then husband’s plagiarized thesis. I remembered how angry I was when I called my father, a Black child of East Orange, New Jersey, to tell him about how excited I was to be teaching my first college class at Louisiana State University. And in response to my joy, my father, “Thank goodness you were married to Brad because being around him and his knowledge must have helped you develop the lesson plans for your classes.” I remembered when I curtly said, “No, it didn’t,” I sounded like a bitter ex.
I remembered what the work of women given to professors by tall dark handsome men in grey sweat suits looked like. I wrote “D” across the paper. The next day when I returned papers, I saw him rush out of class with a look of hurt and disappointment on his face, and something else in his eyes that I could not quite place, but I recognized. This recognition nagged at me. I ignored the nagging until I received an email from the tall handsome athlete who sat in class and never said a word. I was surprised to receive the email from him because tall dark handsome athletes in gray sweatsuits never write to me when they get called out for plagiarism. But he wrote to me:
I am extremely confused and disappointed about the grade on my paper. I put a lot of time and effort into this paper. I even had it reviewed at the writing center at UMASS Boston. I would like to schedule some time to meet with you to discuss my grade and your expectations.
Oh. No. Not me. Not Berlisha. Not Berlisha that left a teaching job at a Black Christian school because leadership would rather hold meetings in which the goal was to chastise and demean a young Black man for wanting the same grill that Nelly gleefully rapped about instead of helping him fill out his (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) FAFSA so that he could go to Southern University of Baton Rouge, Louisiana to pursue his passions of Architecture and Environmental Justice. Not Berlisha that helped the Black men that happened to be elite athletes of LSU see themselves as more than racehorses. Not Berlisha that brought your professor, Dr. Vincent T. Harris and his colleague, Mr. Evante Topp of Columbus, Mississippi, to present their research on mentoring men of color at Colgate University of Hamilton, New York. Not the Berlisha that worked with the leadership of the Brothers at Colgate to make sure that your professor and his colleague had time to work with young men of color at Colgate. Not Berlisha who just the semester before, had made the only Black man in The Black Women and Literature class of Fall 2017 feel so comfortable that for his final project, he wrote a poem celebrating the beauty of dark-skinned black women. A poem in which he channeled the love and beauty of his deceased mother and his sisters that raised him in order to dedicate the piece to the Black and Brown girls he taught at the community center of Roxbury, Massachusetts.
Not that Berlisha. Not Berlisha R. Morton, PhD of Decatur, Georgia. Not me. I could not have done this to a young Black man. How did this happen?
Part two of The Kiese Laymon Book Club will be out next Wednesday.
The Story Behind the Writing
Inspired by the writing of Kiese Laymon, Berlisha Morton invites readers inside four incidents in the life of a Black woman born into the modern South. As her education and her career as an educator take her from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, to Rural Central New York, and Boston, Massachusetts, she discovers that the boundaries of the Old South stretch across the country, and there is no escaping getting muddied by soil watered with racial, sexual, and physical violence. Through a vulnerable remembering of four life changing interactions with Black boyhood and Black manhood, Morton begins to challenge her understanding of Black womanhood. As she tells Jason’s, DeShawn’s, James’s, and Marquez’s stories, their lives become a mirror which allows her to see how her stories and their stories are interwoven with shame and pain but also liberation and love. These interactions provoke her to move from a witness of patriarchy and misogyny to a survivor who can testify to the salvation, transcendence, and redemption found in self-forgiveness and self-love. In honoring the truth and vulnerability of Laymon’s work, Morton begins to see past the artificial boundaries placed between Black manhood and Black womanhood to discover that Black women and Black men are not natural enemies, yet manifestations of a divine, spiritual partnership.
The Writer Behind the Writing
Dr. Berlisha R. Morton
Berlisha R. Morton is an intellectual activist, performance artist and afrofuturista who studies and performs Blackness. She received her doctorate from Louisiana State University and her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Southern University and A&M College, an Historically Black College and University (HBCU) in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Her scholarship has appeared in the Encyclopedia of African American Education, The Western Journal of Black Studies, the Journal of Curriculum Theorizing, the Gender and Education journal and in edited volumes on African American students’ college readiness and Black women’s educational philosophy. She wrote and produced a one act play, Utterances: An Afrofuturistic Ghost Story. Her scholarship and art are driven by a desire to acknowledge the intellectual and spiritual contributions of women like her grandmother and great-aunt – lifelong domestic workers who had little formal education— to literary and educational canons.