To Be a Black Women Professor Amidst the 2020 Uprisings

Jallicia Jolly, IRT ’13

My Thursday mornings know no sunrise without the feeling of crisp autumn air. I wake up to neatly manicured lawns, orange-green leaves, and jogging students as I welcome another Amherst fall day. The scene bears a striking contrast to the weight of black pain on my mind, body, and soul.

I’m undone.

As the brisk, cool air fills my lungs, a flood of thoughts pound the walls of my mind: It is late September, a somber 8:30 am, and week five of remote teaching. It is also a day after a Kentucky grand jury declined to charge police officers who murdered Breonna Taylor, over a week into the Seattle protests for racial justice in the face of violent police repression, one month after the shooting that paralyzed Jacob Blake, four months into the 2020 uprisings launched by the lynching of George Floyd, less than six weeks before another notorious election, and seven months of a pandemic with enduring racial, ethnic, and class disparities.

The air feels heavy.

As a professor of American Studies and Black Studies, I research and teach classes on race, gender, sexuality, and Black women’s health, transnational organizing and social movements, and reproductive coercion and justice.  Every day, I am reminded of what it means to teach as a Black women Professor in the fire this time – a moment where black humanity, protest, and dignity reckons with the violent turmoil of prolonged heightened racialized violence and deep racial disparities in this pandemic. It means elevating the memories of the dead in my work and teaching as I summon the legacies of thinkers and activists who have confronted the dynamic dehumanization foundational to the making of the U.S. and American culture.  It means looking in the face the manifestations of a larger problem of systemic racism and inequity in higher education and academia that rears its head in the silent complicity of powerful actors and in institutional cultures of exclusion. It is to devise a lesson plan while feeling the symptoms of white supremacy and state sanctioned anti-black violence in every media coverage, in each newly recorded execution by police, in the scent of death in an emergency room, in every protest that a life and lungs is put on the line to declare the most basic assertion: Black. Lives. Matter. 

It is waiting to exhale while digesting daily terror. It is waiting for justice. It is waiting, waiting, and waiting.

Time to teach.

I enter the remote space of the classroom. 13 pairs of curious eyes of mostly students of color fill my computer screen.  I smile. This semester, I co-teach a course with a phenomenal colleague on social inequality, social movements, and transnational organizing called Transnational American Studies. This week’s discussion is on state violence and global anti-blackness in the Americas.  We talk about militarized policing in poor communities, the police state and state control of black and brown bodies, and the continued erosion of so-called American democracy. We talk. We question. We talk. We process. We talk. We imagine. We talk, we talk.

I feel pain.

Hearing my students’ reflections on their investments lift my spirits.  They want to expose the myths of U.S. freedom and progress that comingle with uncritical celebrations of this country’s bloody past. They want to situate the everyday racialized violence we see in a broader context of social and economic structures that reinforce ongoing violations. They want to address the systematic devaluation of black and brown people at the hands of institutions and the state. They want to uncover the imperial and colonial practices that have plundered indigenous land, stolen Black bodies, exploited migrant labor, and surveilled working-class communities to build white wealth, to protect white property, and to assuage white fears.

I want them to learn from our many activist traditions and legacies as we listen and learn from the global rebellions and struggles that have taken place on the ground. I teach so that they make connections across our social movements and liberation struggles for life, rights, political recognition, and basic resources such as clean water and food. I yearn for them to further evolve into actors who can create alternative means of survival and models of community from the ground up to address social problems that those in power cannot and will not solve. I hope they create their own pathways and strategies that enable them to advance the causes they are most passionate about as they contribute to the social transformation of our times.

Importantly, I hope they dream, and love, and laugh, and rest, and not only survive, but thrive.

I hope they live fully.

My hopes, like my fears, strike the core of what it means to teach in American Studies and Black Studies in this particular moment. And I am left with more questions than I have answers: What are we here to do and what is the purpose of academia? What is our role to play within and beyond the privileged, elite walls of the “Ivory Tower”? Who shoulders the labor of doing this work? How might we join forces with and elevate the work of those actively building a whole new world order as we speak? If not now, then when?

As the terrors of the quotidian evolve, wreaking havoc on our minds, hearts, relationships, classrooms, institutions, and governments, they remind us that that the kind of transformation we need involves: making real personal sacrifices, tending to our own cyclical psychic violence and emotional labor, and pursuing investments in full selfhood and radical liberation that free us from exploitative economies of privilege, power, and protection that intend to improve the quality of life of a few at the expense of the cyclical dehumanization of the marginalized many.

I teach knowing that these days of our lives are the fire this time. I write carrying the fierce intention of my ancestors in my heart. I work knowing that the fire in our spirit must blaze to light the torch of a radical tomorrow. With courage in my soul, I hope.

Jallicia Jolly is a writer, post-doctoral fellow and incoming Assistant Professor in American Studies and Black Studies at Amherst College. Dr. Jolly researchers and teaches at the intersection of race, gender, sexuality, and Black women’s health and activism, HIV/AIDS and intersectionality, transnational feminist organizing, and  reproductive coerciona and (in)justice in the African Diaspora. She is working on her first book manuscript, Ill Erotics: Black Caribbean Women and Self-Making in the Time of HIV/AIDS, an ethnographic and oral history study of the erotic lives and grassroots mobilization of young Black Jamaican women living and loving with HIV/AIDS.  A Fulbright Scholar, Mellon Mays Fellow, NWSA Grad Student Scholarship Winner, and Sarah Pettit Doctoral Fellow at Yale University, Dr. Jolly’s work and commentary has been featured on the Huffington Post, Ms. Magazine, Michigan Radio, Rewire News, & University of Michigan’s National Center of Institutional Diversity and LSA Today Magazine.

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