©copyright August 2014 Karsonya Wise Whitehead
I would like to write you a love letter about peace/ of a time when black men, like black panthers, roamed free/ of a place where black bodies were not endangered and black life was not criminalized.
Alas, I am not old enough to remember life back that far (if it ever even existed in this country).
Neither am I old enough to remember life before Brown.
I suspect (though) that it was not much different than it is now in places like Ferguson and New York and Florida/ places across America where the crime of breathing while black is still punishable by death.
I used to be afraid of white sheets (wouldn’t even use them on my bed) ‘till folks traded them in for blue uniforms/ and then traded their wooden crosses for bully clubs.
My heart always skips a beat when a cop’s car is behind me while I’m driving at night/ and though you are not old enough to drive, I am already frightened by the day when you are stopped for the crime of driving while black.
There are days when being black in America overwhelms me and makes me want to spend the day in bed/ and times when being the black mother of a black boy in America makes me wish I had enough money to move you somewhere where I could keep you safe.
Safe from them—the ones who see your life as expendable and unnecessary/ and from us—those who look at you without realizing that you are a mirror that simply reflects them.
I often think about slavery and how different life was when you could see the hand that held the chain that was attached to the ball that was tied to your ankle.
We come from a people who experienced this daily and still chose to survive.
Survival is our legacy.
And since we survived the Middle Passage as involuntary passages on a trip that sealed our fate/ And we survived slavery, whips and latches by learning how to give way and stay small/ And we survived the Civil War by claiming freedom at the hands of those who looked like our oppressors
—surviving is our goal.
We are a long-willed stubborn people.
Who survived sharecropping and the period called the nadir,
The Great Depression, Vietnam, Reaganomics, and crack cocaine.
We are a stubborn and strong-willed people.
Who survived lynchings, cross burnings, and being terrorized for wanting to vote and for trying to reclaim our voices.
We who have been beaten and starved,
Disenfranchised and disempowered,
Overlooked and ignored,
Underpaid and underrepresented.
We survived because we are strong-willed and stubborn.
And though there are times when we are like strangers in a foreign land/ we look around and wonder how we got here/ we take stock and realize how little we actually have/ we wonder how long we will continue to suffer and die at the hands of both the oppressor and of the oppressed
—we survive anyway.
Because survival is our legacy.
There are days when I look at the two of you and my heart swells with pride
As I think about all that you use to be and all that you can become,
And then I stop and catch my breath/ I grab my chest and clutch my pearls/
I blink back tears and shake my head/
for I am sure that the mother of every unarmed black boy who has died
kneeling at the feet of a racist system where guilty verdicts are meted out
—one chokehold at a time
—one gunshot at a time
—one lynching at a time
—one whipping at a time.
I think of them daily (what black mother of black boys doesn’t)
I try to speak their names/ going back as far as I can remember/ adding new names daily.
I do it so that I can remember/ so that the two of you can’t forget/ so that together we can add their names and their lives to the wind so that a piece of them and this moment will remain at this place/ even though we will move on one day
We are survivors.
We are stubborn.
We are strong-willed.
Survival is our legacy and surviving everyday—in this system—is our goal.
Until that day…
CIVIL WAR | AFRICAN AMERICAN HISTORY |WOMEN’S STUDIES
280 pages; 9 b&w illus.
A rare glimpse into the thoughts and experiences of a free
black American woman in the nineteenth century
© 2014 Karsonya Wise Whitehead
In Notes from a Colored Girl, Karsonya Wise Whitehead examines the life and experiences of Emilie Frances Davis, a freeborn twenty-one-year-old mulatto woman, through a close reading of three pocket diaries she kept from 1863 to 1865. Whitehead explores Davis’s worldviews and politics, her perceptions of both public and private events, her personal relationships, and her place in Philadelphia’s free black community in the nineteenth century. Although Davis’s daily entries are sparse, brief snapshots of her life, Whitehead interprets them in ways that situate Davis in historical and literary contexts that illuminate nineteenth-century black American women’s experiences. Whitehead’s contribution of edited text and original narrative fills a void in scholarly documentation of women who dwelled in spaces between white elites, black entrepreneurs, and urban dwellers of every race and class.
Whitehead delineates a narrative that grapples with the complexity of a free black woman’s lived experience during the Civil War. In the book, readers will have the opportunity to see how a historian takes a critical perspective to resurrect a black woman’s writing from a time period when their writing was limited and repressed. In this sense, readers can see how Whitehead is generating knowledge about the black female experience by developing and situating the narrative as part of a limited cannon of detailed personal accounts that describe the lives of everyday free black women during the Civil War. Additionally, by transcribing and reconstructing the life of Emilee Frances Davis, Whitehead provides an opportunity for readers to position Notes alongside other texts and engage in comparative analysis and interpretation that explores, for instance, the history of black Philadelphians and / or the diverse experiences of black free women during the Civil War.
*Questions for the Book Club:
What were the dominant social scripts about black women during the Civil War?
How do Emilie’s diaries, as a public record, challenge and / or affirm the social scripts and narratives written about black women during the civil war?
Although Emilie enjoyed certain liberties as a free woman, in what ways was she still unsafe as a black woman living in the Philadelphia?
How did racial, gender, and economic inequality work through institutional structures and social practices in Philadelphia during this time period?
How might the reconstructed life of Emilie Frances Davis be different if it were written from the gaze of a white male perspective in contrast to a black female perspective?
In what ways might Whitehead be working to disrupt the collective imagination about black women during the Civil War?
How does Emilie’s life disrupt, challenge, or confirm understandings of black women as intellectuals during the later part of the nineteenth century?
How does Emilie Frances Davis, the pocket diary writer, push contemporary understandings of who can be knowledge generators?
How is shame experienced in raced, classed, and gendered ways in Emilie’s pocket diaries?
How did power relations between men and women, and between women, shape Emilie’s lived experiences?
How, if at all, does Emilie express a sense of cognitive dissonance between her life as a free woman and the lives of enslaved women during that time period?
How does Emilie read and understand how inequality shapes her life?
How, if at all, does she analyze social problems and take action?
How did Emilie’s social community help her navigate obstacles?
How did she negotiate her collective and individual identities?
• Birth—Columbia, South Carolina
• Reared—Washington, DC, USA
• Education—B.A., Lincoln University, PA; M.A., University of Notre Dame, Indiana; Ph.D., University of Maryland, Baltimore County, Baltimore, MD.
• Currently—lives in Baltimore, MD
Dr. Whitehead is assistant professor of communication and African and African American studies in the Department of Communication at Loyola University Maryland; a motivational speaker; a Master Teacher in African American History; a curriculum writer and lesson plan developer; an award-winning former Baltimore City middle school teacher; and, a three-time New York Emmy-nominated documentary filmmaker. Dr. Whitehead was selected to participate in the 2013 and 2014 Black History Month Panel sponsored by President Obama and the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH): in February 2014, she was selected to moderate the panel on “African Americas in the Armed Services” and in February 2013, she was one of four experts selected nationwide to present on the topic of “At the Crossroads of Emancipation and Freedom.” Dr. Whitehead was also one of several feminist scholars selected to present at the 100th Anniversary Harriet Tubman Symposium at the University of Albany. She has received various fellowships and grants to support her work including a 2012 Gilder Lehrman Fellowship in American History and a 2010 NEH Summer Stipend.
She was recently selected as one of the top 25 women professors in Maryland by Online Schools Maryland; and she received the 2013 Loyola University Maryland’s Faculty Award for Excellence in Engaged Scholarship (presented to only one faculty member per year). Whitehead has also received the 2006 Gilder Lehrman Preserve America Maryland History Teacher of the Year Award (sponsored by the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History and the Maryland State Department of Education); was one of fifty alumni to receive the Distinguished Black Alumni Award from the University of Notre Dame, Indiana (2005); and, was a winner of both the Langston Hughes, David Diop, Etheridge Knight Poetry Award (1999, 2000) and the Zora Neale Hurston Creative Writing Award (1998) from the Gwendolyn Brooks Creative Writing Center at the University of Chicago.
Dr. Whitehead has served as the Historical Consultant for a series of Emmy-award winning documentaries on Philadelphia; the guest editor for the 2014 edition of ASALH’s Black History Bulletin; and the Historical Content Editor for Red Lion Press’ Children’s Historical Fiction Graphic Novel Series, released in Fall 2010. She has worked with over 2500 K-12 teachers throughout the country through lectures and workshops throughout the country, training them in how to become culturally responsive teachers in diverse environments. She wrote and helped to create Cr. Camille Cosby and Renee Poussaint’s Civil Rights Movement website With All Deliberate Speed and has written lesson plans for schools, museums, and cultural centers; and state and local history curriculums. Dr. Whitehead is the author of three books: Sparking the Genius: The Carter G. Woodson Lecture (Apprentice House 2/14); Notes from a Colored Girl: The Civil War Pocket Diaries of Emilie Frances Davis (USC Press, 5/14); and The Emancipation Proclamation: Race Relations on the Eve of Reconstruction (Routledge, 10/14); and the editor of The Emilie Davis Companion Reader (Apprentice House, 5/14).
Dr. Whitehead is also an internationally renowned motivational speaker that has spoken to adults, teenagers, and children around the country, a prolific blogger, and a frequent guest on radio and television. Dr. Whitehead is also a wife and a mother of two teenage boys.
“‘To day has bin a memorable day. I thank God I have bin here to see it.’ So begins the pocket diaries of free black woman Emilie Davis of Philadelphia on the day of Emancipation at the midpoint of the Civil War. Her words also capture my feelings in seeing Davis’s diaries published under the expert eye of Karsonya Wise Whitehead, whose scholarly annotations not only set the scene but reveal how this ‘everyday’ domestic-dressmaker’s decision to record her thoughts at the critical hours of the African American journey was itself an emancipatory act.”–Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Alphonse Fletcher University Professor, Harvard University
“With Notes from a Colored Girl Karsonya Whitehead has painstakingly rendered the obscure visible and shed light on a singular figure whose life is a stand-in for millions of unknown stories. This is history at its most democratic and scholarship at its most vital.”–William Jelani Cobb, associate professor of history and director, Institute of African American Studies, University of Connecticut
“This is a remarkable glimpse into the head of a Civil War-era African American woman. Emilie Davis’s perspective shows her full consciousness of her role as a privileged urbanite. Whitehead’s insightful historical/literary contextualization of Davis’s journal makes this an invaluable contribution to our understanding of nineteenth-century communities.”–Emma Lapsansky-Werner, professor of history, Haverford College
“Notes from a Colored Girl is a beautiful testament to the personal life of a single free black woman, superbly reconstructed within the social, political, and religious life of free people of color in Civil War Philadelphia. Karsonya Wise Whitehead’s meticulous attention to detail brings Emilie Francis Davis – a literate woman participating in and shaping the spaces of a free society near the contested borders of slavery – and her personal writings to life. Emilie’s diary is an enduring legacy of the mundane and the extraordinary, carrying us through everyday moments of joy and tragedy, of sewing, socializing, church and school, all within the larger contextual landscape of a nation in upheaval and a community undergoing change. Whitehead treats us with a rare glimpse into a spirited and articulate single woman’s interior world, revealing how she navigated the worlds of work, friendships, religion, family, politics, and community. A great addition to interdisciplinary studies, Notes from a Colored Girl is perfect for exploring the historic contours of race, gender, faith, freedom and community in the nation’s most vibrant biracial city of the age.”–Kate Clifford Larson, Ph.D., author, Bound For the Promised Land: Harriet Tubman, Portrait of an American Hero
*BookClub discussion questions were developed by Conra Gist. “A Black Feminist Translation: Reading Life, Pedagogy, and Emilie” in The Emilie Frances Davis Companion Reader, (Apprentice House: Baltimore, MD, 2014): 15-16.
I have been working on the diaries of Emilie Frances Davis since 2005 and I am absolutely delighted to announce that finally (finally!) the book is coming out! It is scheduled to be released by the University of South Carolina Press on May 18, 2014. I would suggest that you preorder it, that way you won’t have to keep reminding yourself to buy it!
Barnes & Noble: http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/notes-from-a-colored-girl-karsonya-wise-whitehead/1117352313?ean=9781611173529
This was originally published in The Baltimore Sun on 2/20/2014.
By Kaye Wise Whitehead
In the days leading up to the end of the Michael Dunn “loud music” case — in which a white Florida man shot and killed a 17-year-old black teen after getting into an argument over the boy’s so-called “thug” music — I was overwhelmed with feelings of restlessness, worry, frustration and fear.
They were the same feelings I had at the end of the George Zimmerman trial. The same ones I have when I think about the day when my sons will be old enough to drive or walk to the store by themselves. I worry so much about what could happen to them simply because they are black and male. I feel like my husband and I are in the midst of this never-ending war, the same war that my parents and my grandparents fought. It is the same war that black people have been fighting in this country since American slavery was first legalized. This war is simply to keep our boys safe in a society that devalues them, suspects them, fears them and often dismisses them. It is a war that I now fear I am losing.
When my sons were first born, we held them in our arms and promised them that we would love and protect them. When they learned how to crawl, we ran around the house moving things out of their way. When they learned how to toddle, we walked behind them, always ready to catch them right before they fell. When they started school, we used to check in with their teachers every day to make sure that they were comfortable and safe and happy. We taught them how to say please and thank you, how to raise their hands in school before they spoke and how to wait their turn. We taught them to be respectful and polite. We spent hours reading to and with them, taking them to the library, to the museums and to see Shakespeare in the Park. We saved our money, moved into a safe neighborhood and sacrificed so that they could attend the best schools, take piano and play sports. We took them to church and made sure that they learned their scriptures and prayed before they ate their food. We really believed that we were doing everything that we could do to keep them safe, to beat the odds and to win this war. There was a moment when Barack Obama was first elected president that I thought that the war had finally ended and that we had won. We celebrated because we believed that the work that had been done to create a fair and just society. We believed that America was finally colorblind and post racial. We have come to realize that we were wrong.
We are still living in a country where our sons will be judged by the color of their skin and not the content of their character. I believe that it does not matter how much education they have or how polite they are or how much money we make or that they can play the piano and fence and swim. In this country, no matter were they are or what they are doing, they will still be seen as threats and thugs and criminals. They will be seen as disposable.
My heart broke last year, when the Zimmerman verdict was read and I wondered aloud if it was open season on black boys. My husband and I had our race talk with our sons and talked to them about what it means to be perceived as a criminal even if you are just walking down the street. We told them what to do when they were approached by the cops or were followed in a store. At the same time, I quietly asked myself, over and over again, how many more weaponless black boys were going to die as a result of white men standing their ground. My sons followed the Dunn case very closely, asking questions about the defense and about the law. They argued with each other and with me because they believe that this is a human rights issue and that no person has the right to shoot into a car full of people. We sat and listened to the outcome and tried to understand how the jury failed to reach a verdict on the murder charge against Dunn, convicting him only of three counts of second-degree attempted murder. My youngest wanted to know if we would ever live in a society where boys like Jordan Davis, Dunn’s victim; Trayvon Martin; or Emmett Till would ever have justice. My teenager wanted to know that in addition to not being able to wear a hoodie or stand on a corner or ride on the subway, does this mean that he can never sit in a car with his friends and play music. Although I am helping them to understand that these issues are much more complicated than that, in so many ways I do recognize that they are not. We live in a society where black boys are not able to walk free and where they are devalued and are without personhood. We are living in a society where the war continues.
Kaye Wise Whitehead is assistant professor of Communication at Loyola University Maryland. She can be reached on Twitter @kayewhitehead or by e-mail at email@example.com.
Read more: http://www.baltimoresun.com/news/opinion/oped/bs-ed-dunn-verdict-20140217,0,7948302.story#ixzz2tjlAI0Us