Elle will be writing a monthly column here at Poems & Numbers.
My name is elle gray and I am an associate professor of history. I focus on recent U.S., particularly within the fields of African American, women’s, and labor history. The mother of one almost-grown-up young man, I have cared for a number of children and I write about black women and motherhood, as well. I have lived my whole life between Louisiana and Texas, a fact that shapes one of my other passions—cooking. I love calla lilies, puppies, and good books. I have a love-hate relationship with my writing, but it is absolutely necessary to my life!
What was most difficult about being a single working mom and a single mom as a grad student?
I think there were a few things. First, when it came time to write the dissertation, I was almost six hours from home without the childcare and support resources family bring. I had to learn to do my work at night and I think that’s a significant contributing factor to my ongoing struggle with insomnia.
Next, the fact that I was a first-gen grad student (hell, college student). I didn’t really know how to navigate the program and I didn’t know the language. People would be up talking about methodologies and pedagogies, etc, and I’d be feeling blank. But impostor syndrome wouldn’t let me reveal how unsure I was—I didn’t want anyone to figure out that I wasn’t supposed to be there (that’s the lie my mind told me).
Then, I think the lack of familiarity people had with my lifestyle (I get that now as a professor, sometimes, too). Were there other parents? Sure, but they tended to be partnered which is different. Plus, it felt like no one (whether on the grad school level or the professor level) understood my financial situation and I was ashamed. I wasn’t ashamed because I got food stamps or anything—that helped. I was ashamed in things like my colleagues would want to go out and I regularly had to say no because of money. And I don’t think they understood, this wasn’t, “I’ve spent all my disposable income/strayed off my budget” lack of money. This was, “I have to overdraw my account” lack of money. This was, “I’m so glad it’s two days until payday because I know I can write a check at Wal-Mart for things and it won’t post to my account until I get paid” lack of money. So, I have a bit of a reputation as a homebody and friends who gently scold me or say things like, “What??? I can’t believe you’re out of the house.” Is part of it becomes I’m an introvert? Sure. But part of it is lack of means and not wanting to have to calculate how much my bill is going to be and check my account to make sure I don’t get declined. It was similar to how they could/can go to conferences without department funding or pay all their professional association dues, etc.
Finally, there were little things like people who thought of my child/motherhood as a burden. In my MA program, one of my professors pulled me aside right after I had the baby and scored a low B on something. He told me, to paraphrase, that they believed that I was going to be a star student before I had the baby. And I mentioned to my PhD advisor that I was my son’s room mother and she didn’t like that. She told me I could do that later but at the moment, I needed to be sitting down focusing on writing. I remember thinking, I don’t have a later kid. I have a right now kid!
How we gonna survive the next four years? My dad says, it’s just gonna be four so we’ll manage. What if it’s the 8 years?
I don’t know. I try to envision my resistance. I think for me, it’s going to have to come through words. They’re my medium.
I’m trying to stay aware and protest even though I just want to ignore him and his evil for four years (ain’t that some privileged shit to even twist my mouth to say? SMH).
I try to comfort myself with the knowledge that marginalized peoples in this country havelong survived horrible things. But I’m tired of us having to “survive” and “make it through” and “look to the future.”
What did you do after the election results that night?
Called my friend who I knew would be just as devastated and cried with her.
Shared disbelieving text conversations with friends.
Went to bed because I just couldn’t deal.
It’s like that “nigger” moment, like a huge MACRO-aggression when you are reminded that people whom you have to share a country with are so scared that the population is browning, so terrified that there was a black president, so longing for a day when some of us would have known “our place,” that they will turn the presidency over to an unfit, unqualified demagogue.
I also feel terrified that he has a following that, no matter how messed up things he says are, no matter that he associates with admitted white supremacists, no matter his record of sexism and discrimination, they support him. That scares me!
We’ve seen a lot of discussion of how the art and literary world is going to change for the better because of this oppressive regime we’re gonna come into. As a Black historian, how do you confront the idea that we, the WOC magical creators, weren’t already putting forth our best work and with support can continue to do so without having to live through oppressive regimes to produce art?
Ha! Didn’t read this before I wrote the last paragraph on the previous question. I think that paragraph and this question are related.
I’m not sure why people are so invested in the thought of us suffering, to the point to that they almost see it as a necessity. Maybe because they’ve watched as we (and our foremothers) bear so much and press on, that they can’t even envision anything else?
I can’t fully answer this question because of all my time studying WoC, I haven’t figured out how to get some people to accept our humanity, our desire to thrive. Why is suffering “noble” for us? Why is only our pain sufficiently “artistic?” I steadily think about phrases like “this bridge called my back” and “de mule uh de world.” Like, how long will we talk about the weight of what we bear and have it ignored?