The Living Thinkers Project
Thinkers: An Autobiography of Black Women in the Ivory Tower
Producing Black Women’s Media:  Providing Context for the Making of Living Thinkers:  An Autobiography of a Community of Women, A Documentary and Archive Media Project (2010)
By Roxana Walker-Canton

International Conference of the Collegium of African American Research, Paris, France, April 6-10, 2011 National Council for Black Studies Conference, New Orleans, Louisiana, March 17-20, 2010

Progress in Spite of Stereotypical Media Representations of Black Women

The last part of the 20th century, America still witnessed “firsts” in relation to black women breaking down walls of “segregated” professions in academe.  In 1987 Dr. Johnetta B. Cole became the first African American woman president of Spelman College, a historically black, private, women’s liberal arts college in Atlanta, Georgia.  Dr. Ruth Simmons became the first African American woman president of Smith College, a predominantly white, private, liberal arts college for women in Northampton, Massachusetts in 1995 and subsequently became the first African American woman president of an Ivy League university, Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island in 2001.  In 1999 Dr. Shirley Ann Jackson, who allegedly received the largest salary and benefit package in academe, became the first African American woman to head Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, a national research university – Dr. Jackson was also the first African American woman to receive a doctorate from Massachusetts Institute of Technology in physics in 1973. Of course, this is not a complete list of firsts for African American women in academe, but the three examples serve to demonstrate the increase of African American women’s presence and status in the ivory tower. (Bates 2007)  Although “firsts” signal progress to a degree, Living Thinkers:  An Autobiography of A Community of Women seeks to navigate between the actual progress and the perceived notions of progress for African American women in colleges and universities in the United States.

In 2007, during March Madness, the name used to identify the month of games leading to the finals for women and men’s NCAA intercollegiate basketball, Tennessee’s Lady Volunteers defeated Rutgers’ Scarlet Knights 59-46 to win its second straight NCAA Basketball Championship. What should have been a celebration of the athletic accomplishments of both predominantly African American women’s teams, turned into a media frenzy that reinforced stereotypically racist and sexist perceptions about Black women.  The day after Rutgers’s defeat, radio personality, Don Imus on the MSNBC’s Imus in the Morning referred to the Rutgers’s women’s basketball team as “nappy-headed hos” after the show’s executive producer, Bernard McGuirk, called the team ‘hard-core hos.’”

IMUS:  So, I watched the basketball game last night between – a little bit of Rutgers and Tennessee, the women’s final.

ROSENBERG:  Yeah, Tennessee won last night – seventh championship for [Tennessee coach] Pat Summitt, I-Man.  They beat Rutgers by 13 points.

IMUS:  That’s some rough girls from Rutgers.  Man, they got tattoos and

McGUIRK:  Some hard-core hos.

IMUS:  That’s some nappy-headed hos there.  I’m gonna tell you that now, man, that’s some – woo.  And the girls from Tennessee, they all look cute…
(Mediamatters for America 2007)

A myriad of derogatory comments airing on different media outlets continued the degradation of the Rutgers women’s basketball team while deflecting criticism away from the shock jock; instead media personalities meted out unforgiving critiques against hip hop music and culture.  The media circus emphasized the historically insignificant, sub-human if not invisible status of black women in the US. Media representations of black women continue to perpetuate stereotypical images of black women as mammies and music video vixens – the modern day jezebel, and now athletic brutes who, as Rosenberg goes on to say in his discussion with Imus and McGuirk, look like men.  (Mediamatters for America 2007) Each of these representations assign personality traits to black women’s objectified phenotypes.  Dark skin, overweight black women are overbearing yet nurturing; black women with a large fleshy buttocks are oversexed, and dark skin black women athletes whose hair does not reflect dominant aesthetics are “hard-core,” “nappy-headed hos.”  Although female collegiate athletes have a higher graduation rate than their male counterparts, it appeared that the image of black women athletes as “nappy-headed hos” was a more comfortable and recognizable representation of black women for some than a representation of the women as scholar athletes. Rarely are black women perceived of or represented as scholars and intellectuals or as the prestigious presidents of universities and colleges across the nation that they have come to be. Stereotypical media representations of black women hold hostage their intellectual identity by perpetuating iconic representations that fail to identify the real-lived experiences of black women.

Media Images and the Oppression of African American Women
In her seminal text Black Feminist Thought:  Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment, Patricia Hill Collins asserts that three main conditions structure and perpetuate African American women’s oppression in America.  First, “the exploitation of Black women’s labor” and “ghettoization in service occupations” direct Black women away from traditional intellectual work in favor of day-to-day survival in impoverished conditions.  Second, American political and educational institutions systematically exclude African American women from rights and privileges afforded White American male citizens including the right to vote, the right to hold public office, the right of due process in the judicial system, and the right to equal educational opportunities.  And last, but not least, Collins suggests that “negative stereotypical images” such as the mammy, jezebel, unwed mother, welfare recipient, matriarch and emasculator build the foundation for the continued oppression of black women in America.  (Collins 1990, 6-7)  All three of Collins’ assertions regarding the continued oppression of black women are applicable to the exploration of the education of black women in the US.
First, African American women (and men) occupy a presence on many predominantly white campuses, but not in great number as faculty, administrators and students.  Instead, they occupy the marginal space as cooks, housekeepers, maintenance workers, and entry-level office workers earning wages that keep them in impoverished conditions. The Black Women at Virginia Tech History Project begun by Elaine Carter in 1994, sought to identify and collect narratives of the first black women--student, staff and faculty--to enter the university.  “Preliminary findings suggest that black women may have first entered the university community as laundresses and maids.” (University Archives of Virginia Tech 2001) In February 1969, black food service employees led a strike at the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill protesting, “low pay, poor working conditions, and racist supervisors.” (3Cs: counter-cartographies collective) Before the largest demonstration at Duke University in 1968,

Most African Americans on campus were limited to work as housekeepers, food service workers, and groundskeepers, where they earned far below the federal minimum wage and received no overtime pay or medical insurance benefits. They were also prevented from building seniority. Managers were predominantly white and male, thus making the promotion of Blacks virtually impossible. In addition, Black workers were treated in a humiliating manner, forced to call students "Mister" or "Miss" although the reverse was not true, and were subjected to ridicule and insults by management. (Ludwig 1999)      

Second, although black women matriculation rates and graduation rates in universities and colleges are steadily rising, Black women are still few in numbers and their presence is still tenuous.  In 2007, it was reported that black women improved their college completion rate from 34% in 1990 to 47% in 2006. (Black Student College Graduation Rates Inch Higher But a Large Racial Gap Persists 2007) The American Council on Education, however, reported that,

Five states over the course of the past decade and a half have enacted laws (four through voter initiatives) that are designed to eliminate public higher education’s consideration of race, ethnicity and gender when conferring educational benefits for students. …Clearly, therefore, although issues associated with access and diversity goals implicate a number of important legal principles, key points of relevance extend beyond the courtroom — to key institutional stakeholders and the public at large. In short, successful advocacy regarding the imperative of expanding student access and enhancing student body diversity depends on higher education’s ability to “make the case” in the courtroom … and beyond. (American Council on Education 2009)

While African American female student enrollment increases, an imminent backlash threatens to make it more difficult for minorities to be accepted in colleges and universities that have had a history of discriminatory practices excluding African Americans.  
The hiring of African American faculty in general and African American women faculty in particular continue to reflect dismal numbers. Although universities and colleges may take pride in their diversity initiatives that have opened the door for one or two new black women faculty or administrators, when looking at the overall percentages of African American faculty on campuses across the nation, it is clear that African American professors in general and African American women professors specifically are still the last hired, and only filling very low quotas. According to data published in The Chronicle of Higher Education Facts & Figures 2009 - using the data from Massachusetts and Georgia as examples - there were only 33 Black faculty out of 881 at Boston College, 47 black faculty out of 2,524 at Boston University , 7 out of 358 at Brandeis University, 10 out of 159 at Emerson, 91 out of 3,545 at Harvard, 70 out of 4,630 at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 15 out of 226 at Mount Holyoke College, and 10 out of 270 at Williams College. In Georgia, Agnes Scott College had 7 black faculty out of 84, Berry College had 1 black faculty out of 143, Emory University had 188 black faculty out of 2,980, and Savannah College of Art and Design had 15 out of 413, (Race and Ethnicity of Full-Time Faculty Members 2009) The percentages of Black faculty are very similar for public universities as well. 

Finally, Collins contends that negative stereotypical images also structure and perpetuate African American women’s oppression in the US.  In fact, I contend that the continued negative stereotypical imaging of African American women provide the basis for the discriminatory practices and racist ideology that deny them equal access to political power, economic freedom and educational opportunities. As a media project, Living Thinkers:  An Autobiography of a Community of Women is as concerned with the image-making and visual representation of the women participants as it is with the historical and cultural content that the project generates.  Producing and securing wide distribution of media that tell stories that more accurately reflect the lived experiences of African American women and constructs visual images of African American women that challenge the prevailing and pervasive degrading images of African America women may help to change perspectives about this diverse community of women.

Screens, Mirrors, and Perceiving
We exist in a visual and technically mediated world where image is paramount – where the general population watches more television, films, and online media than it reads books.  As such, Living Thinkers seeks to challenge the objectified images of Black women that influence ways of perceiving Black womanhood. Jacqueline Bobo, in “Reading Through the Text: The Black woman as Audience,” concludes that different from the ideological intent of media to continue “resurrecting” stereotypes of African American women to maintain the status quo, “The Ideological project of Black women writers throughout the history of their creative endeavors was to effect a cultural transformation by presenting a different version of Black women’s social and cultural history.” (Bobo 1993, 273)
Black women’s cinema, both fiction narrative and documentary, has become a site from which black women can wage war against their oppression, while simultaneously serving as a refuge in which they can identify and perceive their mimetic representation.

Christian Metz likens the cinematic screen experience to that of a child identifying with itself in a mirror.  This primary identification aids in the development of the ego.   Like the mirror the child identifies with, cinema gives its audiences a projection of the world with which they can identify.  That which is absent on the screen, however, is the spectator’s own body.  The mirror then becomes more like a glass window through which the spectator can observe the world.  As such, the spectator cannot identify with herself as an object, but only with the objects around her.  It is always the “Other” who is on the screen - the spectator absent from the screen, but present in the auditorium in a position to perceive “Other.” “The imaginary, by definition, combines within it a certain presence and a certain absence.” (Metz 1999, 802-803)     Although spectators may not be able to see their indexical reflections on the cinematic screen as in a mirror, they may observe a mimetic representation that is so close to their reality that in some ways they can substitute themselves for the cinematic representation.  This process of substitution and identification is more of a reality for white American men than for any other group in America since mainstream films privilege the white male hero, masculinity, and patriarchy as organizing forces.  What happens, then, when black women see mimetic representations, or their own “Africanist presence” on the screen who have no agency, no voice?  African American women experience what Toni Morrison describes as the “surrogate body” in which the black woman’s physical presence exists only to define whiteness – like maids scurrying in the shadows, silent, obedient and in service to white patriarchy. (Morrison 1992, 6 & 26)

Iconicity and the Representation of African American Women
A core theme in black feminist thought is to challenge the controlling images that are “essential to the political economy of domination fostering Black women’s oppression and are designed to make racism, sexism, and poverty appear to be natural, normal, and an inevitable part of everyday life.”(Collins 1990, 68) The iconic representation of African American women vacillates between the nurturing mammy set on helping white families and the immoral, uncultured, welfare queen.  When she is not placed in one of those positions, audiences are unsure of what to think of her.  The idea of the iconic and the mimetic is concerned with pictorial degrees of resemblance. 

If Stephen Prince’s notion of the significant role that the iconic and mimetic play in audience perception of meaning in film holds any truth, then one might understand the hesitancy of white viewers to resist or ignore counterhegemonic images of black women as scholars, intellectuals or policymakers. If the main encounters of white Americans with black women is through the media (as opposed to real life interactions), then their perceptions may be shaped more by media icons than by experience. Black women as diverse and dynamic main characters or subjects causes a disruption in the accepted icon of “The Black Woman.”  Representations that cause displacement of location may be uncomfortable and shrugged off as unbelievable.  Audience members may decide not to suspend their disbelief to imagine a filmic world in which black women are not caring for whites, where black women are not intimidated by whiteness, where black women are intelligent, beautiful, loved and sexual; where black women will kill for the revolution against oppression, and where Black women struggle and survive. 

In accordance with the Frankfurt School of thought, gatekeepers of the film industry are “strong and controlling” while the audience is “weak, willing, and easily fooled.” (Kolker 2002, 21)  To recognize the power of a new representation of black women on the screen would force audiences to see black women off screen in a new light. Jesse Algernon Rhines writes, “…Black women are consciously, if not deliberately making films with subject matter outside the norm of Hollywood.” (Rhines 2000, 96)  As black women filmmakers meditate on issues of race, class, gender, oppression, history, culture, politics, spirituality, family, sexuality, eroticism, among other topics, their particular perspectives on these issues are more often than not in conflict with the accepted media gatekeeper’s perspectives on these issues. 

The gatekeepers are interested in profits first, and rarely, if ever, interested in using cinema to create change in society. Historically, Black women’s intellectual and activist traditions have been obscured and when uncovered not believed.  The lives and works of Maria Stewart, Harriet Jacobs, Anna Julia Cooper, Mary Church Terrell, Sojourner Truth, Mary McLeod Bethune, Ida B. Wells, Fannie Lou Hammer, and many other African American women are excluded from American intellectual history.  The exclusion continues in the film industry as well.  Black women’s voices and stories are systematically made invisible within the whole mainstream cinematic experience, from conceptualization of projects, writing, funding, producing, shooting, editing, marketing, distributing, and theorizing. “Suppressing the knowledge produced by any oppressed group makes it easier for dominant groups to rule because the seeming absence of an independent consciousness in the oppressed can be taken to mean that subordinate groups willingly collaborate in their own victimization (Fanon 1963; Friere 1970; Scott 1985).  Maintaining the invisibility of black women and our ideas is critical in structuring patterned relations of race, gender, and class inequality that pervade the entire social structure.” (Collins 1990, 5) By making some voices inaudible in mainstream film, Hollywood has made American audiences blindly accept the notion that African American women don’t make films and that the stories that African American women tell are not stories that they want to see.

African American Women Enter the Academy
While newly emancipated slaves dismissed their former masters’ philosophies about education and supported universal and state-funded public education,

The planters believed that state government had no right to intervene in the education of children and, by extension, the larger arrangement. Active intervention in the social hierarchy through public education violated the natural evolution of society, threatened familial authority over children, upset the reciprocal relations and duties of owners to laborers, and usurped the functions of the church. (Anderson 1988, 4)

Historically, the education of Africans in America has been viewed as a threat to the dominant status of White Americans. Many Whites attributed David Walker and Nat Turner’s revolutionary tendencies to their literacy.  (Perkins 1983, 184) Although free blacks in the northern states during the 1830s and 40s attempted to enter public institutions, the education of most free blacks before Emancipation occurred as a result of black-led community organizations and churches or through the individual philanthropy of free Blacks of economic means or of individual Quakers. By 1863, every southern state established legislation prohibiting the education of slaves and some free blacks as well.  Nevertheless, antebellum blacks developed a philosophy of “race uplift.”  Education was to be used to improve the social, economic and educational reality and status of the entire race.  “Blacks established coeducational schools and similar curricula for both males and females.” (Perkins 1983, 184)

The cult of true womanhood shaped women’s education.  The ‘true woman’ emphasized “innocence, modesty, piety, purity, submissiveness and domesticity.”  Education for women focused on developing the “ideal woman.” Female education upheld the status of women as subordinate to men.  Their education was to make them better wives and mothers, and their literacy was important for religious purposes. While this model could be achieved by the upper and middle-class white women and while poor white women could “aspire” to this model, “the emphasis upon women’s purity, submissiveness and natural fragility was the antithesis of the reality of most black women’s lives during slavery and for many years thereafter.” (Perkins 1983, 183)  The 1830’s and 1840’s saw the opening of seminaries for women with the first being Troy Female Seminary.  The curriculum of these seminaries upheld white women’s social and political status while challenging the notion that women were inferior to men intellectually. Many of these institutions that sprung up across the nation became popular institutions for training women teachers.  Few allowed black women to enroll.  The exception was Oberlin College.  In 1833, Oberlin decided to enroll women and blacks “on an equal basis with white men.” Oberlin granted degrees to most of the earliest black college graduates, male and female.  (Perkins 1983, 185)

By 1890, only 30 black women had earned the baccalaureate degree, compared to over 300 awarded to black men and 2,500 to white women.  It was not until 1862 that Mary Jane Patterson became the first black woman in America to earn a college degree followed by Fanny Jackson Coppin – both from Oberlin College. Fifty-nine years later, in 1921, Eva Beatrice Dykes was the first African American woman to qualify for the Ph.D., while later that year she along with Sadie Alexander and Georgiana Simpson became the first African American women to be awarded the Ph. D. from Radcliff College, University of Pennsylvania, and the University of Chicago respectively.

Contemporary Personal Education Narratives
Living Thinkers constructs its story through the autobiographical narratives of women in the academy in 21st century.  The documentary highlights the diverse paths that these black women of the Academy have taken to attain their educational goals, while emphasizing the shared experiences at the crossroads of race, gender, and class. Living Thinkers provides black women a platform to record their own contemporary narratives about their lives as intellectuals. This section utilizes two contemporary education narratives to elucidate primary and secondary education experiences and family perspectives about education in the lives of Ms. Minneola Dixon, former archivist at Oakwood College in Huntsville, Alabama, and Dr. Bonnie Thornton Dill, Professor and Chair of the Department of Women’s Studies at the University of Maryland at College Park.  As living testimonies to the continued struggle for African American women to seek access to and to survive in institutions of higher learning in the 21st century, their narratives function similarly to historical slave narratives that document the struggles of African people to obtain freedom and equality in America.   Their complete education narratives impart contemporary women's views of the impact of their formal and informal education upon African American girls and women's notions of ethnic identity, gender roles, community obligations, family, and spirituality.

Ms. Minneola Dixon, former archivist at the Oakwood College Archives in Huntsville, Alabama discussed the impact of Dr. Eva Beatrice Dykes on the Oakwood University, the only black Seventh Day Adventist College in America, during at interview at the archive in July 2009.  Oakwood College, Dixon said, was a former slave plantation.  The school was built on a former plantation after slavery ended. She commented that white people opened the college in 1886, and they continued to supervise the school until 1917, the year when they hired the first black professor. Dixon suggested that, “When these white men came from the North, they didn’t really know how to relate to the black environment here in Alabama because so much was going on here racially with black people.” In 1932 they hired the first black president.

Dixon said that Dr. Dykes, born in 1893 in Washington, D. C., earned the BA degree in 1914 from Howard University in Washington, D. C.  In 1917, she enrolled in Radcliff College in Cambridge, Massachusetts to pursue a Master’s Degree.  When Radcliff did not accept her undergraduate degree from Howard University, a historically black university, Dykes was forced to earn another B. A. from Radcliff before earning both the Master’s and the Ph.D. from Radcliff. After graduating, Dr. Dykes taught at Howard University before coming to Oakwood in 1944. Dixon remembers,

All of us were pretty much surprised when she said herself that she was leaving this prestigious school to come to Oakwood in this country school, cotton field school  - those are my words not hers – to teach us poor blacks.  But her words were that she wanted to be challenged by this type of atmosphere and wanted to give of her service to help us blacks in this small school to accomplish its goals and develop its students to a higher level, and we thought that was highly commendable of her.  (Dixon 2009)

Dixon remembers serving as Dr. Dykes’ student reader during her last two years as a student at Oakwood from 1949-1951. She remembered Dr. Dykes as exceptionally smart, cultured, refined, and determined that her students learn the basic principles of the English language. Dixon added, “She was determined that you would not leave her class unless you were able to speak audibly about anything and everything.  And audibility was really the theme that she would write on the board everyday.”  Dixon recalled Dr. Dykes’ exceptional talent as a musician. She played piano, directed the campus choirs and organized the first traveling choir from Oakwood. “She was kind, sweet, courteous, and respectful.” Dixon commented that Dr. Dykes lectured and lead Bible studies in the community. Dykes retired in 1986.  (Dixon 2009)

Many of Dixon’s memories of Dr. Dykes were representative of both the moral and religious aspect of the cult of true womanhood and the “race uplift” perspective that antebellum and turn of the century African Americans demonstrated in relationship to education. Although conscious of their gender, the earliest black female college graduates repeatedly stated their desire for an education was directly linked to aiding their race.  Fanny Jackson Coppin expressed in her autobiography of 1913 that, from girlhood, her greatest ambition was ‘to get an education and to help [her] people.’  Anna J. Cooper (1882), an Oberlin graduate of 1884 whose papers are housed at Howard University, stated she decided to attend college while in kindergarten and devote her entire life to the education of her race.  Affluent Mary Church Terrell, also an Oberlin graduate of ’84, jeopardized her inheritance when her father, who wished her to model her life on the upper-class white ‘true womanhood’ ideal, threatened to disinherit her if she worked after graduating from Oberlin.  Terrell wrote years later (1968) ‘All during my college course I had dreamed of the day when I could promote the welfare of my race.’(Perkins 1983, 186)

Dixon’s own education narrative reflects the religious and race uplift motif common to many education narratives of early, educated African American women.  Ms. Dixon was born in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, July 19, 1929 to Sebastian Cabot Dabney and Alberta Dabney.  She, the first born of five children, recalls having the responsibility to set the example for the other children to follow.  She remembers that her mother “did not have the opportunity herself for a higher education” and was only able to finish the 8th grade.  “We lived in very poor circumstances,” she said,  “due to the conditions in Oklahoma City at the time.”  She said that her mother stayed with the children in the home while her father worked. “My father was not an educated person.”   He went to elementary school, but no educational training beyond that.  “He was a hard worker had high principles.” Dixon stated that her parents were “common laborers.”  She said,

I can recall my mother and seeing her going off to work sometimes to work in the home(s) of the white people who would call on her or come by the house, because we didn’t have a telephone…and knock on the door and say ‘Alberta can you come out there tomorrow…I need my house cleaned or I need some clothes washed or I need some clothes ironed’ and just do common labor kind of work.  My father, however, did work as a common labor but it was under the WPA program which was called the Works Project Administration Program which the government funded back in those days to help build roads and bridges and help improve land and the highways…he was a hard working man, little education.  He dug a lot of ditches and worked in trenches. It was really tough work for him.  (Dixon 2009)

When Dixon was 10 years old her father passed away from a heart attack. Her mother was left to raise her children. Dixon recalled,  "Even though my mother could not give us the educational training, all of it, that we needed, I found that in the elementary schools and in the high schools and the educational leadership was with them.  My mother was a character builder and she was a praying woman.  That in an of itself was a lesson for us as her children to learn.Dixon commented that her family had a desire to be something better.  

We never made fun of our poor conditions. We knew that we were poor and that there were other people living better lives in our neighborhood and even far away in the city… and we longed to be in one of those high class neighborhoods. But we didn’t take it as something that was so depressing that we would become bitter and angry.  My mother made sure that everything that we had came from God and if it was His will for us to be in that status and that condition then let us accept it and praise the Lord for what we had, humble though it may be because one day the Lord in His own time would help us to become better.  That’s why she always stressed education.  She would always say get your education first get your education so you can be somebody and so you can live on a higher level, you know.  (Dixon 2009)

Although her family never became “prestigious,” Dixon commented that they were well liked and complimented about the example that they set for behavior, attitude and beliefs.

I feel very confident that with a humble spirit and with a good training and a purpose in life, one can reach the top of the ladder as they say if they follow certain high standards guidelines in their lives and not become depressed over the conditions where they are at the time…they can pull themselves up if they would have that inward feeling and inward determination…derived from their parents, but they can obtain that strength from reading books…reading the lives of individuals who have had the struggles before and how they have accomplished high goals in life. (Dixon 2009)

Dixon recalls having come on difficult times when her husband left her to raise their 4 children.  As an alumni of Oakwood, Dixon was hired as the college archivist in 1970, the same year that Dr. Dykes returned to teach at Oakwood until Dr. Dykes retired in 1986. Ms. Dixon retired as the college archivist in 2009.

Dr. Bonnie Thornton Dill grew up on the south side Chicago in the 1950’s.  Currently the Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and Professor and Chair of the Department of Women’s Studies at the University of Maryland at College Park, Dr. Dill said during an interview in Maryland in July 2009 that, “It is fair to say that I had a very privileged experience as a young black woman in the 50’s." Her mother and father were both first generation college educated.  They worked to put themselves through school.  Her father was an only child, but her mother was the only one of her siblings to finish college and earn an advanced degree.  Her mother was a public school teacher before running a private nursery school, and her father was a pharmacist.  When she was six, her mother earned her Master of Arts degree. Dr. Dill remembered that, “One of the things that my mother never told me until I was grown was that she was not able to finish high school until after she married because she had to drop out of school and help her family.  And after she married my father -and she married when she was 21 - she went back to night school to finish high school. She never told me that. (Dill 2009)  Her mother graduated from Loyola University in Chicago earning a Bachelors and a Master of Arts.

While growing up, Dr. Dill understood that education was important. She attended private school from primary school through high school. She attended the University of Chicago Laboratory School which was affiliated with the university’s education department.  “It was an excellent education,” but she added that her experience was not a highly integrated.  She recalled socializing with the other black children who attended her school outside of school.  “I got a very good standard American – better than standard American – education, but in terms of awareness of and sensitivity to issues of race and ethnicity,  it was limited.”  Dr. Dill continued,

I lived this kind of split life.  There was the life at school, which was a predominantly white and Jewish environment, and then there was the life at home.  And there was the Baptist church that we belonged to.  There were the various organizations and clubs with black friends.  And so I think for some of us getting into black music in different ways…folk musicians…Odetta…exploring black music was one of the ways that…I became aware of some of those things… At a high school reunion some of my friends and I talked about how really unaware of race and racial issues we were during that time…particularly white students.  Black students were aware but it was not something that we talked about. (Dill 2009)

Although discussions of race were not commonplace among her classmates,  “Race was a major topic of conversation in family dinners, family gatherings, just at home.” Her parents were very involved in race work and were known in the community in Chicago. Dr. Dill recalls her mother always talking with friends, who were schoolteachers, about what was going on in the schools and “what was right and what was wrong in the education of black children at that time.”  Dr. Dill commented, that her parents were also involved in the cooperative movement, an initiative to gain economic autonomy and advancement for Black people.  With the various conversations about community initiatives and race matters, and with her mother making sure that she read books about these matters, Dr. Dill, said, “I feel like I got a very good education about African American history.”  So what she didn’t get in school, she got at home. Dr. Dill said,

I so remember my mother saying to me a number of times, ‘I sent you there to get an education, but not to become like those people necessarily or not to forget who you are and not know what your responsibilities are.  I think there was a keen sense that they had to supplement what was going on in that school and the kind of education that would give me the skills to compete in a lot of ways and levels that they had to supplement that with an African American education at home. (Dill 2009)

Although about twenty years separate Ms. Dixon and Dr. Dill, and although they grew up in different parts of the country and lived under very different economic conditions, both women recall the importance that their families placed on education and the important role that community played in their overall education. Dr. Dill’s narrative suggests the double-consciousness and code switching that began to develop among students attending predominantly white, but integrated schools.

Living Thinkers: An Autobiography of a Community of Women consciously uses the autobiography or first person narrative, one of the first literary forms used by Africans in America - such as Harriet Jacobs’ (pen name -Linda Brent) Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, as its selected form to show the connectedness of the diverse paths that women have taken to arrive in the Academy.  In “Rootedness: The Ancestor As Foundation,” Toni Morrison states that,

The autobiographical form is classic in Black American or Afro-American literature because it provided an instance in which a writer could be representative, could say, ‘My single solitary and individual life is like the lives of the tribe; it differs in these specific ways, but it is a balanced life because it is both solitary and representative. (Morrison 1984). 

Incorporating interviews, conversations, storytelling, archival materials, photographs, and narration, Living Thinkers recreates the lives of African American girlhood, womanhood, and motherhood as they relate to the acquisition of a formal education.  After interviewing 100 women, the completed interviews will be archived and made accessible to researchers.  The production of these autobiographical visual records will attest to the presence and contributions of African American women on the development of the Academy and American education.

References Cited
American Council on Education.   A 21st Century Imperative:  Promoting Access and Diversity in Higher Education – A Policy Paper on Major Developments and Trends, Oct. 2009.

Anderson, James D. The Education of Blacks in the South, 1860-1935.  Chapel Hill:  University of North Carolina Press, 1988.

Bates, Gerri.  These Hallowed Halls:  African American Women College and University Presidents.  Journal of Negro Education (Summer 2007),

Black Student College Graduation Rates Inch Higher But a Large Racial Gap Persists.  The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education (2007).

Bobo, Jacqueline.  1993.  Reading Through the Text:  The Black Woman as Audience.  In Black American Cinema, ed. Manthia Diawara, 273.  New York:  Routledge.

Collins, Patricia Hill.  1990.  Black Feminist Thought:  Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment.  London:  HaperCollinsAcademic.

Dill, Bonnie Thornton.  2009. Interview.  Silver Spring.

Dixon, Mineola. 2009. Interview.  Huntsville.

Kolker, Robert. 2002.   Film, Form, and Culture, 2nd edition.  Boston:  McGraw Hill.

Ludwig, Erik.  Closing in on the ‘plantation’:  coalition building and the role of Black women’s grievances in Duke University labor disputes, 1965-1968.  Feminist Studies 25.1 (1999):  79.  Academic OneFile. Web. 28 June 2010.

Mediamatters for America.  Imus called women’s basketball team ‘nappy-headed hos.’ April 4,2007.

Metz, Christian.  1999.  From the Imaginary Signifier:  Identification Mirror.  In Film Theory and Criticism:  Introductory Readings, 5th edition., ed. Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen,  802-803.  New York:  Oxford University Press.

Morrison, Toni.  1992.  Playing in the Dark:  Whiteness and the Literary Imagination.  New York:  Vintage Books.
Perkisn, Linda M.  1983. The Impact of the “Cult of True Womanhood” on the Education of Black Women. History of Higher Education 183-189.  Originally published in  Journal of Social Issues 39(3), 17 - 28.

Prince, Stephen. 1999.  The Discourse of Pictures:  Iconicity and Film Studies.  In Film Theory and Criticism:  Introductory Reading, 5th edition,  99.  ed. Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen.  New York:  Oxford University Press.

Race and Ethnicity of Full-Time Faculty Members.  The Chronicle of Higher Education, Facts & Figures 2009.
University Archives of Virginia Tech.  First Black Women @ Virginia Tech.

3Cs: counter-cartographies collective.  A People’s History of UNC-CH.