Coming Home to Ourselves
Illustrator: Erin Robinson
Review of Cynthia B. Dillard’s
The Spirit of Our Work: Black Women Teachers (Re)member
(Beacon Press, 2021)
My dance students swirled around me with hushed giggles and excited energy as I lifted my phone so everyone could engage with what I was about to share. I scrolled through pictures of a hazy golden sky, vibrant kente cloth that danced on the glimmering dark skin of the people, and red clay earth that met the roots of lush, soaring palm trees. With each scroll, a student slowly raised their hand to the screen and touched it ever so slightly, as if they were trying to feel the photographs come to life. Some even murmured aloud, “Wow.”
I pulled up a video of when I learned about traditional Ghanaian dances, describing the meaning behind the movement and the story told with every step. I shared: “This is the Adowa dance, performed by the Akan people in the southern region of Ghana. The dance started after the Queen of the Ashantis, Abrewa Tutuwa, became very sick. The chief priest said that the only way to heal her was to sacrifice an antelope to the gods. When the people went to find an antelope, they were astonished by its graceful and skillful movements, so they tried to mimic those moves with their own bodies.” As the video played, I felt the group slowly back away from our huddle with their eyes intently watching the screen. They began to move their hands and feet swiftly to the beat of the drums in the video. We had never learned this particular dance or engaged with this history before, yet one student, Briana, exclaimed, “Ms. Cierra, this feels . . . familiar.” I looked at each student. Some had their eyes closed and let the beat pulse through their bodies, while others followed the moves from the video as closely as they could.
As a teacher at a dance institute in the Washington, D.C. metro area, I taught and learned alongside a group of brilliant Black girls, ages 8–14. I led them through weekly technique classes, where they honed and practiced the fundamentals of various forms of dance, including ballet, jazz, and contemporary. We also rehearsed choreography for community performances and our annual showcase. In the time we spent together, my students often raced into class with questions and wonderings about what they learned and also what they didn’t learn in school that day. They expressed their discouragement at the lack of Black history while also asking if we could fill some of those gaps during our classes. From our conversations, I decided to organize our rehearsal schedules so they could both engage in preparation for upcoming showcases and explore the topics they were interested in. Together, we learned so much as they brought back information they researched, as well as stories from their family members and loved ones.
“What have you learned about Ghana, particularly in school, before today?” I inquired. Amari shared first: “To be honest, I haven’t learned anything about Africa in school, let alone any of the countries within it, like Ghana.” Kelsey jumped in: “Yeah! Me neither.” The rest of the group nodded in agreement. One of the older girls, Samara, offered, “You know what? I’m kind of frustrated because we have all this European history in school and not a thing about Africa. I mean, Africa is a huge continent, we can’t even learn something about it?” The other students snapped in agreement.
“I understand,” I sighed. “I appreciate you sharing your frustration with us. Why do you think we don’t learn this history?”
After a long pause, Amari spoke: “I think they don’t want us to know our history. They don’t want us to be connected.” Although Amari never explicitly said who she meant by “they,” I believe she referred to those who maintain the status quo through oppression.
“This is such an important point, Amari. What do you all think it means to be connected?” Tori paused as she began to share: “I think it means to know our history, but it also means that we understand it and it becomes a part of us.”
“What do you all think we should do to be connected?” I asked the group.
“We should learn more of the history.”
“We could learn something each week and then bring it to class to discuss.”
“We could do a dance about what we learned.”
“We can teach others what we learn.”
These were some of the ideas that emerged from our conversation. In the weeks after, we carved out 30 minutes to an hour of our weekly rehearsal time to share both the history and culture we discovered in our research. We discussed Adinkra symbols, food, dance, music, clothing, and more.
During this time together, I also gave my account of traveling on the very roads where Africans were chained and made to walk to the River of the Last Bath. I showed photos of the vast ocean where many of our ancestors were forced to a watery grave or were subject to inhumane conditions as they were stolen from their homelands. I described my experience in Cape Coast Castle and Elmina Castle where Africans were held captive before being shipped across the ocean. While it was necessary to share this history, I wanted to start the story — our story — in the creativity of the people.
I kept coming back to Briana’s statement, “This feels familiar,” and then Amari’s note, “They don’t want us to be connected.” Their bodies held intuitive knowledge about movements we had never learned. I bore witness to them engaging with memory as they felt the bass of the drums reverberate throughout their bodies. I saw them (re)membering who they are by engaging with history and culture where they saw and felt themselves and their ancestors present. However, they also knew that they weren’t getting the full story at school — stories of Black resistance, joy, and creativity. I didn’t have to tell them that.
These conversations in the dance classroom stemmed from two experiences. First, my students came to dance class after school and eagerly shared their wonderings and questions. They asked for the critical information they deserved.
Second, I just returned from a study abroad trip to Ghana through my graduate studies program. The program explored Ghanaian higher education to reexamine issues of social justice and power through a cultural lens to decenter Western ways of knowing and understanding in education. The experience tore me in half and then created space for me to stitch myself together again. The fabric that wove my life together had been torn and tattered from the weight of racism and sexism, yet with every moment I was there, with every morsel of history I drank up, I found pieces to patch some of the damage. In Cynthia Dillard’s words, Black women “have been searching all of our lives for our lives.” I documented as much as I could, no moment too small, because I couldn’t wait to share with my students all I learned.
The Spirit of Our Work
In her new book, The Spirit of Our Work: Black Women Teachers (Re)member, Cynthia Dillard (now dean of the College of Education at Seattle University) provides language for what occurs when Black women teachers discover their spiritual wisdom and identities that are part of a long historical continuum of Black women’s resistance, creativity, and ultimately, their healing. While corporate textbooks often begin Black history at enslavement, Dillard grapples with the lack of attention paid to what this does to the spirits of Black children and Black people. Dillard’s thesis is that many conversations about racial and intersectional identities often leave out the importance of spirituality on Black teachers, particularly Black women teachers. Although she names how religion and spirituality are often conflated, she argues for a spirituality more expansive than religion. Particularly, she pulls from Akasha Hull’s definition of spirituality that is inclusive of political and social awareness, ancestral practices, creativity, and dreaming.
This book takes us through moments in the Ghana Study Abroad in Education program that Dillard led at the University of Georgia. Dillard collected observations, interviews, course assignments, and field notes from 75 students and faculty over seven cohorts. Dillard has deep ties to Ghana. She has been traveling there since 1995, has created space for multiple cohorts of educators to experience Ghana, has led many retreats for Black people to (re)member themselves through travel to Ghana, and is a queen mother, considered a revered divine guide and community caretaker. In the same way that she details Black women educators’ experiences weaving kente cloth in Ghana, Dillard weaves her own story into the text, rich with narrative. The book moves beyond engaging solely with academic texts, but incorporates Black educators’ voices and stories, books like Maya Angelou’s All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes, movies like The Great Debaters, poetry, and speeches, including Beyoncé’s. Dillard models what it means to bring her full self, her spirituality, into the research that the book highlights.
In another of Dillard’s books, Learning to (Re)member the Things We’ve Learned to Forget: Endarkened Feminisms, Spirituality, & the Sacred Nature of Research & Teaching, she defines (re)- membering as answering the question “Who are we in relation to one another?” I held this question with me throughout engaging with The Spirit of Our Work: What does it mean to remember our history and who we are, so we can dream forward, shape, and create liberatory futures? Dillard quickly answered my question. Through her new book, I understood (re)membering as engaging with ancestral knowledge and wisdom, teaching the truth about history, and seeing Black people beyond how the textbooks start our history at enslavement. For example, Briana had never learned Adowa, yet she felt its familiarity. She was connected with her ancestry. Her body intuitively knew the movements. Even if it wasn’t within her conscious memory, it was within the cultural kinesthetic language passed down to her from her community. She (re)membered.
(Re)membering as an Endarkened Feminist Praxis
Dillard expands the theory of (re)membering through an endarkened feminist epistemology, which she defines as “Black feminism in education that explicitly includes spirituality and is informed by the knowings from Africa.” Dillard uses endarkened to counter enlightened. This presses upon the historical ways that darkness has been weaponized and vilified. How we use language works either to uphold or dismantle the status quo, and Dillard is intentional in her language. She also uses parentheses to separate (re) from -membering. The prefix (re) means to do again. This is purposeful because in the book she details how Black women teachers already know. The process of (re)membering involves calling upon what they know and engaging with it clearly. By centering Black women, Dillard refutes Eurocentric, patriarchal beliefs that do not honor Black women’s knowledge as valid and valuable. This centering (re)-claims knowledge and what is considered knowledge.
Dillard offers five pillars that make up (re)membering as an endarkened feminist praxis:
(Re)searching — The process of searching for knowledge and truths about Black history and knowing the importance of being open to the possibility of how we might change and subsequently be changed by what we find.
(Re)visioning — Being able to imagine beyond what is possible and what is considered knowledge. This is beyond what we can see, but also homes in on what we feel, and regards that knowledge as sacred.
(Re)cognizing — Thinking again about who Black people really are, and using asset-based frames to understand and describe Black people, culture, and history.
(Re)presenting — Authentically representing who Black people are in the world by telling the truth in our teaching and pedagogy.
(Re)claiming — Acknowledging that who we are today is shaped by understanding “one’s place, space, and purpose in time.” It also means shifting the policies and practices that govern schooling (e.g., showing grace for ourselves and our students) to more human-centered engagement.
These pillars can help educators, administrators, researchers, and advocates think differently about transforming education. They critique the current system, but also pose a framework for how we can continue to disrupt and dismantle oppressive practices and policies. To illustrate, the (re)visioning pillar invites us to honor students’, namely Black students’, wisdom and envision beyond a system that has policed Black students’ cultures and ways of knowing and being in the world. At a curricular level, this could look like offering students options to demonstrate understanding of what they’ve learned by inviting song, dance, artwork, and other creative talents. At a policy level, this could look like organizing against standardized tests that have origins in the eugenics movement and racial bias. This could also look like organizing against racist, sexist, heteropatriarchal dress codes that disproportionately punish Black students for expressing themselves through the art of hair and dress.
As an example, one of my students came into dance class frustrated one day. “Ms. Cierra, I got in trouble at school because my teacher said my hair was distracting,” Camille told me as she showed her intricate braids. When she shared this with me, other students came up and expressed similar stories. “Yeah, me too!” girl after girl echoed. “What do you think about us researching the history of hair policies?” I offered as an invitation. “We could see where they come from and then maybe we can share the information with others to make them aware.”
We engaged in the process of (re)- searching by looking into hair policies. One example really excited the dancers. We learned about how Black women in New Orleans in the 1700s resisted the unjust Tignon laws, which forced them to wrap their hair in public to signal inferiority because they often wore their hair in impressive, elaborate styles. The women wore the headwraps, but they resisted by having the brightest color headwraps with intricate beading and bold patterns. In essence, they took up space with their presence by calling attention to their creative genius.
“I resist the unjust laws, too!” Kelsey exclaimed. “It’s how I express myself.” They saw their hair as art, which (re)- visioned how they viewed themselves and their creativity. They saw their resistance not as a distraction, but as artistic expression. They (re)cognized that the Black women weren’t abiding by rules, as dominant narratives might tell the story, they were subversive, using their inventiveness as resistance.
After we learned about the Tignon laws, a few students showed up to class with their headwraps — sometimes placed upon their carefully crafted, fresh hairstyles and sometimes peeking out of their bags. They (re)presented themselves by not shying away from this part of their culture that they had been told was not appropriate for school. One student, Lisa, even came to class one day after talking to her teacher. “I told her all about the Tignon laws! I told her that my hair is an important part of me and that it is important to my community and family, too.” Lisa (re)claimed who she was by seeing herself as part of a legacy of creative resistors. Even before they learned about the Tignon laws, they had already confronted dress code policies and engaged in resistance. They (re)membered.
In the book, Dillard describes moments where the Black women educators get fitted for custom-made cloth outfits. In the same way that my students viewed themselves more clearly, to see their ingenuity and (re)claim their artistry from oppressive policies, the Black women educators really saw themselves when trying on the outfits for the first time. They, in Dillard’s words, “came home to themselves.” As educators, how can we create space for students to regard their full selves? To have our policies and practices match our commitment to honoring students’ full humanity? To not only learn content, but to learn about who they are, where they’ve come from, and where they’re going? That, to me, is the process of (re)membering in education.
Grappling with Tensions
One of the tensions I continue to navigate since traveling to Ghana is the tourism aspect of visiting a place, learning as much as possible, and ultimately leaving. What does it mean to be in solidarity with the people beyond the experience and time shared? What does it mean to critically examine visiting Ghana as someone born and raised in the United States, yet not take away from the ways that (re)connecting with the land and the people transforms you? What does it mean to learn about the beauty of a people, but also understand the day-to-day realities that may not surface in a short visit? I am curious how others in the study abroad program grappled with these tensions before, during, and after traveling to Ghana.
One part of the book brings me to another wondering. Dillard highlights the brilliance of Auntie Gifty, a talented seamstress who creates stunning garments for participants in the study abroad program. As Dillard encourages us to honor spirituality and humanity, what might that look like to tell the stories of everyday Ghanaian people, like Auntie Gifty, and everyday experiences in our classrooms? Many of the conversations about Black narratives and Black history place Black people in a dichotomy: royalty and enslavement. The royalty narrative (e.g., kings and queens) leaves out the brilliance of everyday people who are crucial to community care and sustainment. In addition, the words themselves have been associated with hierarchy and imperialism. Yet, language can also reclaim deficit narratives and as Dillard frames it, it is a way of trusting and honoring ourselves, as well as modeling what it means to be well for our students and center our wellness in our work as educators. What would it mean to redefine and reclaim excellence that honors the humanity, spirituality, and wellness that Dillard centers? How do we tell full, complex, nuanced stories of Ghanaian history and our relationships to it in the classroom?
A Balm, Guide, and Road Map
The Spirit of Our Work is a balm for the soul for Black women educators. As Dillard talks about the spiritual knowing of Black women, in a society that seeks to silence Black women and has used stereotypical tropes to denigrate Black women’s knowledge, a theorization of endarkened feminist epistemology is essential. It gives words for me to trust myself, my critiques of the current education system, and my ancestral knowledge.
For those who do not identify as Black women, the book is an invitation and a road map. It is a guide for what it means to listen to Black women, to believe them, and to support them. It is also an invitation to grapple with spirituality in practice. As Dillard comments on the need for schools and teachers to be spiritually ready for Black children, “To teach in ways that are worthy of them requires that their teachers examine our own inner lives, those places in our hearts where we may harbor characterizations and misunderstandings of the spirit and power of Black children.” Dillard then asks a question that gives me pause: “How can we teach if we don’t know what brought us to this place?”
It is a spiritual process to deeply know ourselves in a capitalist society that often tries to strip us of our humanity in service of production and conformity. We have to be well enough to teach students and we have to (re)member in order to create space for our students to do the same. At a time when state legislatures are banning teaching the truth, contending with history and recognizing our role in the revolution is a spiritual process. When we know who we are, we can fully show up for young people without reproducing the same harms we have been made to internalize. In Dillard’s words, “We must know in order to be able to do.”
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Excerpts from The Spirit of Our Work: Black Women Teachers (Re)member
By Cynthia B. Dillard
(From pp. 179–181)
Black women offer you the invitation to (re)member. That is the first lesson. And that is the invitation that you must also offer your students. But as their teacher, before you plan a lesson or develop any curriculum or syllabi, your inner life must be well. As the person responsible for your students’ well-being and wholeness in mind, body, and spirit, you too must be whole. Not perfect, but having spent considerable time in reflection, careful study, and examination of your spirit, your knowledge of the children you teach, and the values embedded in the long traditions of their people. Like medical doctors, who take the Hippocratic oath to “first do no harm,” as teachers who already have the gift of Black students in your care, you must take up even more urgently the invitational questions below, lest you unknowingly do harm to Black children in their educational experience. So before you teach Black students, you might start by asking yourself these questions:
- Who am I? What are the racial, cultural, social, class, and other identities that I embody? Can I say them out loud in the company of those who do not embody the same identities?
- When I think of my friends and colleagues, are there Black women or Black people in this group? Why or why not? Have I ever talked about our racial differences and really listened to what they were telling me?
- If I am a white person, is there a knot in my gut as I talk about Blackness and Black people and how did it get there? How do I describe that knot to others and how does the act of doing so enable a productive dialogue with others, particularly across differences?
- What is my life experience with Black women or Black people, not just in the U.S. but across the globe? What additional experiences might I need to have in order to understand Black life more fully, and how do I responsibly and respectfully have those necessary experiences?
- How have I prepared to approach the realities of Black women’s lives in specific ways, with the attention that geographies, sexualities, economic class, languages, and other differences require?
- What lessons am I learning about myself as I learn about versions of Black life from Africa to America and back again?
(Re)member: this is not an exhaustive list but simply offered as an invitation to begin to tap into your own spirit as a necessary first step to your teaching. It is also an invitation that is given to teachers of all racial, ethnic, and social identities.
(From pp. 182–184)
If as a teacher you will join in the struggle for education and freedom that creates a sanctuary for Black students and communities, you need to know that the struggle you are joining did not start today. You need to know that the struggle for Black lives to matter began in the invasion of the continent of Africa and the subsequent plundering of her resources that continues today. And you will need to make a serious and ongoing commitment to critically study and unpack the length of that hurt, harm, and danger that you may have endured, both personally and professionally, and that in other cases you may have also caused or benefited from. As a teacher, you will need your own sanctuary to do this work, leaning on no one else to teach you what you do not know as a shortcut to the gift that critical learning and (re)membering can be for your spiritual and intellectual growth and development. In sanctuary, all the (re)membering processes are yours to grow through. That is the gift of sanctuary: it’s a place where you can search again, vision again, think again, present yourself again, and, ultimately, claim and live legacy again. Who is a part of the sanctuary or sacred community you create will vary, but it may need to be made up of a racially or culturally homogeneous group at first: we all have a lot of healing work to do within and around those who share similar racial, cultural, and social identities. That is just fine. As we saw in chapter 2, (re)membering will partly arise from gathering the memories of our schooling and other segregated experiences in the U.S. and beyond. The Black women teachers in the GSAE [Ghana Study Abroad in Education] program had and continue to have multiple and different sacred communities within which we (re)membered, including the company of other Black women in church spaces, organizations, and the like. The key in sanctuary is to wrestle with the hurt, harm, and danger, as well as the joy, resilience, and strength of our ancestors, and to acknowledge and even revise our covenants with them. And when our teaching embodies spaces of sanctuary and freedom for our students that we ourselves have learned and experienced, as the Black women teachers in this book told us: everything is possible. Here are a few questions as you begin your work in sanctuary that might be helpful to your growth and examination of yourself as a teacher of the stories and accomplishments of Black people:
- How do I hold differences in the stories I am reading or experiences I am having with Blackness sacredly with reverence, without judgment or denial?
- Can I be comfortable in these experiences in a place where it is not always about me, not about what I know or feel, being empathetic enough to imagine a differing reality than my own?
- Are humility, sacrifice, and selflessness at the center of my desire to “know” Black stories, Black culture, and Black people, or am I collecting exotic stories to tell?
- How does what I thought I knew about diverse Black people match what I am now hearing from engagements with diverse Black people?
- Where are the places and people who could provide disconfirming stories to the ones I am experiencing? Have I sought out their stories, too?
- How do I struggle within the tensions of the African continent and her diaspora and the relative and multiple meanings within the larger story of Black culture?
- In what ways do the stories I’m hearing (or the texts I’m reading) map onto my experience and knowings? In what ways are they different? What does that help me to know?
- What else do I need to know to imagine sharing my learning with my students? More importantly, what can they teach me?
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. You can purchase the book by going to this link: beacon.org/The-Spirit-of-Our-Work-P1735.aspx.