Last week, I was invited by Professor Ifeoma Nwankwo of Vanderbilt University to speak to her students during her course, American Studies Workshop: Black Nashville.
“This class is part of a new innovative course series called “Music City Perspectives.” Through it, Vanderbilt students will learn from, about, and with the city’s diverse communities, while also honing their academic writing and research skills and contributing to the greater good. The Fall 2009 course will focus on populations of African descent in the city, particularly African American, Caribbean, and African communities.”
Initially I wasn’t sure what I wanted to say. I was invited to speak about my experience as a Black Nashvillian. It is always an interesting exercise to talk about your experience with a particular identity group. How do I explain being a Black, queer, working class, southern woman in her 30s? I just am what I am, right? What would be the best way to break down the culture and politics of those identity groups, but then reassemble them to give the full picture of the experience I am having, and how that experience informs all the work that i do? How would I feel doing that with/for individuals who may not have a single piece of identity in common with me, yet if they did, would they experience it exactly the way that I do?
I decided that rather than examine all these intersecting identities alone, then presenting some finished analysis, that I would walk the students through my process. I wanted to invite them into this conversation that I was having with myself. (giggle)
I came to class with a few ideas I had been working on, then put my theory on the board and asked for feedback. We talked about pieces that could be missing from my analysis. I thought it was important to acknowledge that as soon as we are born, the world responds to us, giving us information about who we are, and then how we are to respond to/with that information. At our core is this authentic, essential being, but once our identities are layered onto us, we filter who we truly are through that matrix of identity. The result is our performance. But what happens if we want to alter that performance or find that it doesn’t fit? Are we free to alter this performance? Aren’t there incentives to maintain a certain performance at all times. Perhaps we are more predictable or easily controlled if we do.
I’d love to return and have follow up conversations. The course seems ripe with good news. I’m looking forward to their final projects.