Why Black Women Teachers Should Cultivate and Protect Their Spirituality
Cynthia B. Dillard on the Sacredness of Knowing, Memory, and Inheritance
We are not a people of yesterday. Do they ask how many single seasons we have flowed from our beginnings till now? We shall point them to the proper beginnings of their counting… The air everywhere is poisoned with the truncated tales of our origins. That is also part of the wreckage of our people. What has been cast abroad is not a thousandth of our history, even if the quality were truth… But the haze of this fouled world exists to wipe out knowledge of our way.
–Ayi Kwei Armah, Two Thousand Seasons
If we are to talk about spirit and spirituality, what is important to know first and foremost about people we call African Americans today is this: we are Black on purpose for a purpose. Whether conscious of or willing to name our existence, we are Africans first. Black people. Regardless of the names we call ourselves, our existence in the diaspora has been seducing us to forget the memories of our ways, “poisoned with the truncated tales of our origins,” as Ghanaian author Ayi Kwei Armah says above.
Despite these powerful acts of seduction, many of us have answered a call that honors a profoundly different truth, a call to be like Harriet Tubman’s light in dark places. A truth that is about the right to be free. A truth that embraces the need to push and resist. A call that requires us to agitate and move toward (re)membering our way and the freedom that brings. We are Black on purpose for a purpose.
Too often in the study of teaching and teacher education, we approach discussions and research about race, gender, and education from a place of presuming Black people just happened to be here in the Americas. Just happened to be enslaved. Just happened to have suffered more than 400 years of degradation and inequities. We speak and act as if these traumatic conditions occurred to an entire race of people (and continue to occur) without regard to the consequences and effects that such a legacy has on a people, particularly in relation to teaching, learning, and education.
By extension, such narratives imply that it was simply an unfortunate set of circumstances that just happened in the United States of America instead of a systematic structure of privileges for some and marginalization for others, conditions that have created the permanence of racism, racial injustice, and racial inequities. We need only look at the recent uprisings in the streets across the US and around the world to be (re)minded of Black people’s continued and persistent resistance and revolution in the face of oppression. The insistence of our humanity is in our DNA.
The impacts of racism and racial inequities on Black women continue to be an invisible part of this legacy of oppression, especially in the literature on Black teachers’ lives and experiences. This is an invisibility that must be addressed. In my view, there is a different way to think about the presence and work of Black women teachers. We can center the conversation about education on the spirit of Black women teachers who have thrived and loved in spite of our unmentionable and multiple oppressions. Black women have always marshaled and (re)membered the legacy of Black people in relation to our spirits, and those (re)memberings have required us to lean on the “substance of things unseen”—on our spirituality.
Current conversations about racial and intersectional identities are largely silent about the role of spirituality, spiritual health and well-being in the lives of Black teachers who are often, by default, also those teachers called both to teach and to provide safe havens from the often detrimental impacts of race, gender, and inequities in education for Black and Brown students. This is made even more insulting because this labor of protecting our children in schools comes in addition to teaching our subject matter or the topics on our syllabi. This is part of the invisible labor and burden that Black women teachers bear every day.
This invisibility is at least partially a result of the separation of church and state that undergirds education in the US. But what scholarship has implicitly told us—and what I have worked over the course of a career to lift up—is that in order to face adversity, oppression, and exclusion and remain steadfast in one’s right to exist and be, it is often the spiritual life that has supported and affirmed (and continues to support and affirm) culturally relevant and sustaining practices in educational spaces with Black students and their teachers. Throughout this book, I speak of spirituality or a spiritual life in a way that is nuanced by the lived experiences of Black women. Spirituality here is defined as a consciousness of and attention to the order, power, and unity that flows through all of life and that encompasses an energy and responsibility greater than ourselves.
But for Black women, spirituality has three additional dimensions that comprise what akasha Hull describes as the new spirituality of Black women, with “each dimension impacting the others and all of them together generating tremendous power.” These dimensions of our spirituality include (1) our politics; (2) our spiritual consciousness; and (3) our creativity. Thus, engaging one’s spirituality is also about using it to address, break down, and work to abolish structures and conditions that hamper liberation and freedom for Black people. Such labor requires great creative force and energy. But I believe it also requires Black women teachers to (re)member who we are—our history, culture, and contributions—in ways that take into account the long history of Black life, resistance, knowledge, and culture.
Our work as Black women teachers has been and continues to be about attending to the spirit of those whom we teach and, at the same time, about “talking back,” resisting and creating the education we wished we had ourselves. But undergirding this labor (and often in hostile climates), we must also (re)member who we are and whose we are in order to create more humane conditions in school and university communities. What is important to know for Black women teachers at all levels—from K–12 through higher education—is this: when Black women are able and willing to marshal their spirits in pursuit of teaching and learning, everything we touch can be transformed, including our students.
Despite all that we have been through, Black women have continued to sing our songs and tell our tales as loudly as we are able. But the hunter has always told the story in ways that glorify his conquests, labor, and accomplishment. It is now time for Black women to (re) member and tell our stories in ways that lift up the politics, spiritual consciousness, and creativity that we hold dear and that fuels us. And those stories travel full circle: from the continent of Africa, through the diaspora and back again. We have an obligation to make our teaching and living about (re)membering the full circle of all of our stories.
So like the voice of Nana in Daughters of the Dust, like the wise stories many of us heard as children at the feet of our ancestors in our versions of a village, like those heard from older kids on our block, or at the knees of our mothers as they braided our hair, I begin to tell this collective story of how (re)membering is a central part of the spirit of Black women who teach. My first step in telling this story was to gather texts that have been transformative and life-changing for me as a Black woman teacher and scholar. I (re)viewed them before I wrote a single word of this book. This act was a homage to my ancestors, a literal gathering of their wisdom into the space to support the sense-making that was required from pages of copious notes, interview transcripts, and handwritten journal entries. This process was the precursor to laying hands on the computer keyboard.
One of the first pieces I picked up was a stunning book by Ghanaian author Ayi Kwei Armah published in 2000 and entitled Two Thousand Seasons. As I (re)viewed it, I realized yet again that acts of (re)membering are the cultural guidance we need from the ancestors, an inheritance for Black folks that has already been bought and paid for: we need only put on our crowns. Knowing who we are and whose we are, knowing that we are enough and walking in that truth is already deeply embedded inside of us, in our memories as Black people. Even in the problematic realities of the American experience, Black people embody a spiritual knowing, a just knowing, a way of being in relationship with the full circle of life.
And who we are is grounded in an energy that is greater than our individual selves alone. Black people, and especially Black women, are the humanizing energy that can lift all boats. We have spent too many centuries forgetting our knowings and our ways of being. And it has been long enough. My hope is that, in this reading, you too might be moved to (re)member, to call your very life back to yourself on behalf of the demands of the day, on behalf of Black education, on behalf of the liberation and freedom of Black people everywhere. But to do so, we have to learn to (re)member the things we have learned to forget.
(Re)membering is especially important for those of us who have been chosen by the vocation of teaching. However, Armah cautions that for teachers, our forgetting is not simply about not being able to (re)call in a cognitive sense. Forgetting is akin to what legal scholar Patricia Williams describes as the murder of the spirit. The murder of the very essence of who we are and what animates us as spiritual beings having a human experience. It is to forget the wisdom that can both guide us and heal us. Armah states it this way:
The teachers told us quietly that the way of experts had become a tricky way. They told us it would always be fatal to our arts to misuse the skills we had learned. The skills themselves were mere light shells, needing to be filled out with substance coming from our souls. They warned us never to turn these skills to the service of things separate from the way… Our way, the way, is not a random path. Our way begins from coherent understanding. It is a way that aims at preserving knowledge of who we are, knowledge of the best way we have found to relate each to each, each to all, ourselves to other peoples, all to our surroundings. If our individual lives have a worthwhile aim, that aim should be a purpose inseparable from the way… Our way is reciprocity. [Our] way is wholeness. Our way knows no oppression… Our way is hospitable to guests… Our way produces before it consumes… Our way creates.
So how did we, as Black people—the original people—learn to forget? Why does that forgetting matter? And how do we (re) member? It matters because, from the continent of Africa through her diaspora, we are one people. It matters because the strength of a people can be measured in how we take care of the babies and the women and the elders among us. It matters because we are a people who have endured immeasurable suffering and still hung onto each other, and to others, and loved hard. And it matters because the very spirit that animates our being has been inundated with so many lies that our teaching, perspectives, and ways of being demonstrate every day unconscious and learned acts that mirror the widely held beliefs that we are a people with nothing.
Granted, it has not helped that structures of dominance around us—embodied in governmental legislation, systems of schooling, and detrimental and inequitable policing policies to name just a few—have presumed these same lies about Black people and acted in line with those distorted views of us (and of themselves). And given that the schooling experiences of Black women teachers featured in this book have often taken place in a post-integration context, what we were even able to know deeply about ourselves as Black women and what our babies are still receiving from school systems is still drenched in whiteness and white supremacy.
Unfortunately, given this “education,” we too, have often acted dysconsciously as Joyce King teaches, without conscious regard to how these inequitable and cruel structures of white supremacy, patriarchy, and formations of gender have shaped us. Most unfortunate for us, we have acted accordingly, acted in the way that Carter G. Woodson made visible in The Mis-Education of the Negro: “When you control a [wo]man’s thinking you do not have to worry about [her] actions. You do not have to tell [her] to stand here or go yonder. [S]he will find [her] “proper place” and will stay in it. You do not need to send [her] to the back door. [S]he will go without being told. In fact, if there is no back door, [s]he will cut one for [her] benefit. [Her] education makes it necessary.”
This is what interlocking systems of oppression do to Black people who do not (re)member their longer history while on these shores. It traps us exactly where we are, where others want us to be, in the place of knowing only what others want us to know. It ensures that Black people are doomed to repeat the cycles of destruction and pain that have been reigned upon us.
But what I know for sure? Even if we might have been asleep to our inheritance as Black people, the ancestors have always been awake.
Excerpted from The Spirit of Our Work: Black Women Teachers (Re)member by Cynthia B. Dillard (Beacon Press, 2021). Reprinted with permission from Beacon Press.