In the 1970’s, the university where I was teaching hosted a program for several summers that was designed to bring bright black students who would be seniors sand who were interested in graduate study to our campus. They would conduct research with faculty mentors for several weeks, make a final presentation to the entire group, and return to their schools having a better idea of what graduate work might entail. When Leroy Gardner, the man who ran this program, asked me if I would work with a young woman who was an English major, I agreed. Between doing that and meeting her, I fretted about what she’d make of my obvious Southern background since I am white and she was black. Leroy told me to remember what I’d recently learned about the paralytic nature of the guilt I felt as a white person growing up in Alabama in the 1940s and 50s.
At the appointed time, I welcomed to my office Preselfannie Whitfield, who had just completed her sophomore year at Jackson State College in Mississippi. I knew about Jackson State because that was where white police had maced protesting students, killing several, just days after a similar tragedy had taken place at Kent State University, a predominantly white school in Ohio. Of course, there was just one tiny mention of the atrocity at Jackson State and endless news reports about Kent State. Preselfannie recognized my geographical roots the moment I said hello, but seemed determined to stay focused on getting my help in choosing a writer on whom to work for the precious time she had in Minnesota. I no longer remember which white woman writer I suggested, but I remember clearly just how hard Preselfannie worked and what a solid final paper she wrote.
The next spring, Leroy called me again to say he had decided to bend the rule that stipulated that a student could enroll in his program only once: Preselfannie had reapplied as she was entering her senior year. She wanted to work with me on the African American author, Gloria Naylor. I knew Naylor’s novels and had even taught her powerful short story collection, The Women of Brewster Place. This time I jumped at the chance to watch the young scholar spread her wings. I was amazed by the maturity that had taken place in the year between my initial contact. The person in my office the second summer knew exactly what her thesis would be, which critics she already was familiar with, and what she wanted from me as her mentor. To my delight, she told me she intended to make telephone contact with Naylor so that she could include her own words in her essay. Persevering in this idea, she eventually had a long interview with the author. Her essay was chosen as one of the four outstanding research projects that would be shared at the concluding banquet. As Preselfannie stood before her audience composed primarily of people in the sciences or engineering, telling them why fiction by a black woman was worth their consideration, I felt as proud as I can remember ever feeling.
Since then, Preselfannie Whitfield has become Preselfannie Whitfield McDaniels, given birth to and helped rear two sons, gotten a Ph.D., been awarded tenure at her alma mater where she teaches a wide range of literature courses, and published her first book. Our contact these days comes in an exchange of holiday cards/letters in December. When I saw an envelope with Preselfannie’s address label, I eagerly opened it, sure I’d hear about her family and her own progress. Instead, I got her deep concerns about what the November election will mean over the next four very long years.
Like me, she had not been able to compose the usual message to friends and family members. In fact, in my case, I have not written a single sharable word since November 8th. Instead I’ve considered doing one of the following: baying at the moon, rending my garments, ululating, never cutting my hair until after he is gone from the White House. But one of Preselfannie’s sentences has galvanized me and here I am, determined not to let him silence me any longer. That sentence said she had been waiting to get my blog after the election because she figured I’d have some words that could be helpful to her as she coped with her own stunned reactions. So this blog is specially for Preselfannie.
My promise to myself for 2017 is to write words here at least once a month, and to stop giving the Orange Man so much of my energy, energy much better spent doing almost anything else. It is better spent remaining in solidarity with people organizing in their own neighborhoods to stop police violence against people of color or people whose religious or sexual expressions are considered “different”; it is better spent joining the inspiring individuals from so many walks of life who will keep vigilance at Standing Rock in North Dakota, no matter the weather; it is supporting artists in all media who realize it is time to make their art speak to the issues of the day; it is applauding the athletes who refuse to remain silent when they understand how to utilize their platforms to offer support to those who continue to be held back by virtue of who they are. Resistance and fierceness and a clear-eyed refusal to normalize the present political climate: those are my watchwords.