guest-edited by Danielle Evans
This study compiles relevant details that draw an informative picture of black women academics, who, in numbers significantly higher than their non-academic peers, become partnered with white men. The work of Lydia Davis, especially, “Helen and Vi: A Study in Health and Vitality;” also “We Miss You: A Study of Get-Well Letters from a Class of Fourth Graders” provides a methodology for this research. This study seeks the connection between a disposition that would seek to identify and articulate the racist underpinnings of everything from the latest cover of Vogue magazine to indifferent treatment in a Denny’s restaurant and a tendency to make lifelong commitments to white men.
Origins of the study
This study began as a broader ethnography concerning the personal lives of black women in the academy, and initially focused on graduate students. Subjects were all members of a support group for black women at a large university in California. Interviews were conducted over a series of two years, during which several of the women graduated and moved away to accept positions of varying prestige. A portrait of the original group provided some discernable patterns of interest:
- While all of the members identified themselves as black, and specifically African American, nearly a third of the group had one white parent, usually a mother.
- Half of the women had white husbands or boyfriends. It was this discovery that led to the study. (It should be noted that two of the women were involved with white women.)
- An overwhelming majority of the women wore their hair “natural,” i.e. without chemical processing. One wore braids, another hair cropped close to the scalp, and the rest wore varying lengths and widths of dreadlocks. The hair habits of black women in the academy, particularly the penchant for dreadlocks, might be the focus of a related study.
Over the course of preliminary interviews, the biracial women elected themselves out of the study by either moving in with, or accepting marriage proposals from black men: African Americans and one Nigerian immigrant. Phyllicia Gadsen and Aisha Brooks*, now tenure track professors in Humanities departments, became the study’s focus. An expanded version of this study might include Sharon Williams, a social scientist who wears a weave in her relaxed hair. Phyllicia teaches at a large research university in the Midwest and lives in a small college town. Aisha teaches at a private liberal arts northeastern college and lives in an urban setting. Phyllicia has been with her partner, Dylan, for seven years; married for three. They have cohabitated on and off in deference to the rigors of the academic job market. Aisha has been living with Frederick for two years; they moved in together two weeks after they met.
Dylan adjuncts at colleges in the area where he and Phyllicia live while he completes his dissertation. Frederick owns a house painting business.
Childhood and Family
Unlike many of the black women in their generation, Phyllicia and Aisha grew up in two-parent homes. Another atypical element of their experiences is their lack of religious experience as children. Phyllicia grew up in West Philadelphia with her mother, father and older brother. Though the family lived on a working class income, Phyllicia characterizes them as “the educated class” because both of her parents earned Bachelor’s Degrees and held white collar jobs. Her father, who recently retired, moved his way up from a clerk to a supervisor in the accounts payable department at a utilities company. Her mother has had a series of jobs with politically engaged non-profit organizations working for economic development in local communities. Phyllicia describes her family as close-knit. They ate dinner together every night and cultivated holiday traditions. They spent a great deal of time with her extended family. Phyllicia’s brother is three years older. They have not always been close but are “working on it,” according to Phyllicia. She says she likes spending time with his small children, though she laments, biting her lip, that he has not seen fit to stay with any of their mothers.
Phyllicia attended racially mixed public schools in Philadelphia and graduated from a private liberal arts college. Her earliest memory of education comes from her kindergarten year in a majority-white private school that specialized in innovative learning techniques. Students at the school spent a lot of time singing in a circle on the floor. Phyllicia reports that being the only black girl in the class made her feel like a messy spot on the rug.
Aisha grew up the only child of an upper middle class family in northern New Jersey. Aisha’s biological father (“my father”) is a jazz pianist, much older than her mother, who now resides in a physical rehabilitation facility in St. Louis. Aisha is not sure she will see him again before he dies of cirrhosis of the liver. Aisha’s stepfather (“my Dad”) is an executive at a plastics company. Her mother is a real estate agent. Aisha’s family rarely ate dinner together, and she did not have much contact with other relatives. Aisha declares that she was not lonely. Her mother and stepfather celebrated holidays with giddy lavishness. She loved to read, ride her bike, play Atari and listen to music. Her best friend was Robert, a Jewish boy with whom she attended majority white public elementary, middle and high schools. In high school, Aisha kept busy playing varsity basketball and dating “everyone but Robert,” she says laughing. She attended Spelman College briefly, but graduated from New York University.
Before Dylan, Phyllicia dated only black men, “when I could find one that would let me,” she says. Despite the evidence from old pictures that reveal a slender, attractive and young woman, Phyllicia insists that she was homely (“with an inner lesbian stylist”) until she began studying magazines to learn how to dress in her 20s. She did not date, kiss or have sex until she was 22. The majority of the boys and men on whom she had crushes were African American, some biracial (white and black) and one biracial boy who was Chinese and Puerto Rican. Phyllicia’s girlfriends consistently had boyfriends (who, like them, were black) but Phyllicia claims not to have envied them. It should be noted that one of Phyllicia’s best friends from high school is the mother of her brother’s oldest child.
Phyllicia’s parents made it clear that they expected her to date black boys. Once when Phyllicia was in junior high, a cousin brought a white boyfriend to a cookout. “He was a piano mover!” her father kept saying later, “a piano mover!” No one in the family ever saw the young man again and the cousin eventually married a polygamous black Muslim. At a family gathering a few years later, when Phyllicia was sixteen, a different cousin announced that she thought Phyllicia would wind up with a white man. When asked why, the cousin shrugged. Phyllicia remembers that while both of her parents yelled at the cousin, they seemed to be “looking at me.”
Phyllicia had two major boyfriends before she began dating Dylan. One was a business school student, a wining-dining buyer of flowers. Phyllicia reveled in his flamboyant attentions, but the couple fought over his schedule of endless business school study groups, his uncritical enthusiasm for capitalism, and his racial politics. He thought Phyllicia was too racially sensitive, and called her paranoid on more than one occasion. She says he was self-hating and ignorant. After he graduated from business school – long after they had broken up – he moved to South Africa to pursue economic opportunities in emerging markets (“the way maggots pursue feeding opportunities in dead cows” Phyllicia says) and married a very light skinned woman there, a local beauty queen working as a manicurist.
Phyllicia describes boyfriend the second, a cable television technician, as “too Christian.” A well-built, skilled lover with beautiful lips, he would begin talking about Christ anxiously after lovemaking. Phyllicia hated watching him say grace in cheap restaurants. Before the question has been posed to her, she denies the suggestion that the relationship ended because she did not want to get seriously involved with a cable guy.
Aisha has had a handful of relationships that she considers significant. She makes just passing mention of a secret sexual relationship – her first -- with a Rutgers student when she was fourteen. She repeatedly references two other relationships: one with a black male academic, the other with a Jamaican-American woman, a dancer. She says that the academic, who she claims is famous (though his name eludes both Google and Amazon searches), is a sexually ambiguous sociopath and the only one who ever broke her heart. With regard to the woman, Aisha claims to have broken hers. However, the woman was recently featured in the first ever New York Times “Vows” column to feature two black women. She married a wealthy socialite, the daughter of one of the oldest families in Harlem.
Aisha’s family has never been terribly involved in her romantic life. (They did somehow find out about her dating the Rutgers student in high school. Though the entire business was handled as a curfew violation, Aisha knew that her parents were scared for her. She remembers sitting across from her stepfather at the kitchen table, him saying, “Be smart, girl. Be smart.”) Her mother and stepfather have been cordial to the men she brought home. Her stepfather was particularly enamored of the black male academic (who cheated on Aisha with her dissertation adviser, and then published an essay about it in Essence magazine). Aisha never mentioned the woman she dated for a year. While the majority of her partners have been black, Frederick is not her first white boyfriend. This is a fact which neither of her parents has addressed at length, though her mother once mused that she herself would have never dreamed of dating a white man “even if I was attracted to them.”
“That stung a little,” Aisha murmurs.
Both Phyllicia and Aisha are brown-skinned, though Phyllicia, who is slightly darker than Aisha, resolutely describes herself as dark-skinned. This designation seems to have come from experiences with black male high school classmates who designated her “cute for a dark-skinned girl.” In actuality, Phyllicia approximates a 4 out of 10 on the ViaSegura-Bolsa Color Scale (1-10 from lightest to darkest skinned). She is 5’6” and 150 pounds and describes herself as “a little” overweight. She wears shoulder-length dreadlocks, small silver glasses and a moderate amount of makeup. She has pronounced dimples. “I’m okay,” she says, “and I’m okay with that.”
Aisha rates approximately 3 out of 10 on the ViaSegura-Bolsa Color Scale. She stands 5’9” and weighs 140 pounds. She has a dramatically small waist, wide eyes, a beak-like nose and long slender fingers. She disdains makeup, and her skin tends toward oily. Her thick dreadlocks, streaked with gold, hang down to her waist. Aisha also describes herself as “okay,” but weaves into her conversation stories about men who approach her on the street, in clubs, and even in the halls of her graduate school. She was once chased down the street by a woman who identified herself as a modeling agent. (“I looked her up and she actually was.”) Over the course of the interview, Aisha told 14 such stories. She frequently ended the telling with the question “Isn’t that crazy?”
Dylan and Frederick
As the subject of this study is black women academics, the investigation ascertained information about their partners solely through the subjects of the study. What follows in this section are the results of interviews with Phyllicia and Aisha. Though their partners were sometimes present in the home during the interviews, they usually drifted in and out, seeking glasses of water or searching out car keys. Frederick was often eager to make it known that he was at hand in some other part of the house during Aisha’s interviews.
Dylan and Phyllicia were graduate school classmates. Though he arrived in the program two years before her, he is still working on his degree. Since it is not uncommon to secure a position while still a graduate student, he has gone on what academics refer to as “the job market” three times, but he has been unsuccessful. Remaining enrolled as a student in graduate school is a typical response to this state of affairs. Phyllicia speculates that Dylan’s heavily theoretical work intimidates hiring committees. When asked to describe his dissertation, she remains silent for what seems like a long interval. During the next interview she reads excerpts from an impenetrable abstract that mentions Hegel 23 times.
Dylan was raised in a working class family in Florida. His father is an underemployed “but hard working” contractor and his mother is a nursing home administrator. Dylan grew up with a sister and a fraternal twin brother. Phyllicia visited Dylan’s childhood home near Tallahassee once when they’d been dating for two years. Her meeting with his family was so unpleasant that they moved to a motel and truncated their stay. Dylan’s father never looked her in the eye and his brother, who is married to a Cuban-American woman, asked Phyllicia what black people wanted to be called these days. Phyllicia has never met Dylan’s sister, who cut ties with the family several years ago, and moves between ashrams in the Northwest.
Dylan and Phyllicia have an amicable, if not enthusiastic relationship with Phyllicia’s parents. While her mother has said it was not her dream for Phyllicia to end up with a white man, she is happy that Dylan treats her well and has a kind way about him. Phyllicia’s worst fight with her parents occurred when she and Dylan moved in together, and her father accused her of settling for a loser just because he was white. “Should I settle for a loser like your son because he’s black?” Phyllicia snapped. Her mother responded, “The fact that you think your brother is a loser is why you can’t get a decent black man.” Phyllicia says, “That was the worst thing she ever said to me.” No one ever apologized or equivocated, but the family continues to speak on the phone regularly and spend holidays together. Sharon’s mother, who never married, encouraged her not to be limited by race in dating, calling a preference for black men a ghetto mentality. She mother adored Sharon’s ex-fiancé, a white lawyer who was disbarred for emptying an escrow account, and likes her current fiancé, a money manager named Peter, even better. She calls him JJ, because she says he favors John F. Kennedy, Jr. Though Peter shares JFK Jr.’s icing-like brown hair, he weighs close to 300 pounds.
Aisha and Frederick met in a long line to look at the same apartment in North Oakland. Aisha had just broken up with her woman lover and was feeling battered. Frederick didn’t mention that he was living with his girlfriend of five years. Neither of them got the apartment.
Frederick, an only child, grew up in Northwest Washington D.C. attending exclusive private schools. His father is a retired State Department official and his mother is a memoirist. Frederick’s mother, an atheist from an old family in economic decline, and his father, a “lapsed Jew,” are very fond of Aisha. She slips back and forth uneasily between reiterating that they are good people, and expressing her discomfort with their treatment of her. Frederick has fought with his parents, claiming that they treat Aisha like an exotic pet. To underscore his point, he complains about how disinterestedly they, his mother in particular, behaved towards his previous girlfriend, the woman he was living with when he met Aisha. In fact, the friendly relationship that Aisha has with Frederick’s parents has caused discord between the couple themselves. During one argument, Frederick told her, “They don’t like you! They just like what you say about them.”
Both Aisha’s mother and stepfather like Frederick. While neither has come out and said so, Aisha suspects that he reminds them of Robert, Aisha’s best friend growing up. Aisha states flatly that Frederick is nothing like Robert, who died in a bus accident in Mexico during junior year study abroad.
Frederick, who majored in anthropology and art in college, spent years trying to make a living as a visual artist. Having been denied admission to several art programs, he says he does not believe in the graduate study of fine arts. While Frederick relies on the financial resources of his parents, he started the house painting business when he and Aisha moved in together. The business, which consists of Frederick and a 22-year-old from El Salvador who also works at a restaurant, occasionally gets calls, but Frederick takes time off when he feels inspired make a painting. Aisha says he cites an anecdote about how Gabriel Garcia Marquez opted out of a long planned family vacation because he got the urge to write and – voilá, One Hundred Years of Solitude.
Aisha manages the couple’s money and every aspect of their financial life is in her name. They do not buy each other presents and adhere to a strict travel and entertainment budget. Less frequently than Frederick’s, Aisha’s parents provide practical support. When Frederick, who often threatens to stop accepting money from his family, suggested that Aisha should not accept checks from hers, she says she couldn’t help but “laugh in his face.”
Dylan is of average height, average weight and has green eyes with long eyelashes. His permanent expression is questioning, his hair sparse. Frederick is rail-thin with a nascent belly. He has a storm cloud of dark curly hair, a long sharp nose, blue eyes that are almost purple and extremely red, thin lips.
Phyllicia says that Dylan is a good lover who always expresses appreciation for her body, even as she herself experiences ups and downs with it. She nevertheless laments the lack of novelty in their sex life, and reports that the couple prefers sleep to sex during much of the academic year. “I’m sure Dylan has sexual fantasies that involve me being black. I mean look at this,” Phyllicia says, gesturing toward her rear. “But we have long conversations about these things.”
Aisha recalls that she began crying the first time she had an orgasm with Frederick, speculating that this had less to do with Frederick than with emotional reverberations of her long sexual history. (Frederick maintains that her response was a response to her fear of their shared passion.) While Aisha says that both she and Frederick enjoy their sex life, he complains that they don’t have enough, and reminisces about his previous girlfriend who made up for quality with quantity.
Aisha says, “Well, you have to be attracted to someone for something.” She mentions that Frederick had a black nanny for the first two years of his life only to later ask if this detail can be excised from the study. Peter never dated a black woman before Sharon, but he once received oral sex from a black prostitute at a fraternity party in college. Sharon says, “Don’t worry. I get mine,” and waves her engagement ring. “I mean my mother stuck with black men and what did it get her?” she says. Her father is now serving time in prison for armed theft of a 7-Eleven.
Both Phyllicia and Aisha write and teach about racial representation. Both say something along the lines of, “the majority of white people are racist,” while Phyllicia adds that the majority of black people are racist against themselves. Both recount a long history of experience with direct and subtle racism occurring right up to the moment: Phyllicia was recently called a “nigger” when she tapped a white woman’s car in a Wal-Mart parking lot, and Aisha has a terrible time catching cabs in New York trying to visit friends in Brooklyn.
Both women say that their partners are knowledgeable about racism. Phyllicia says that she and Dylan share the same basic beliefs and talk openly, though she sometimes wonders if he has kept a few strategic secrets about his Southern past. Aisha says that Frederick, who spends a lot of time on the internet investigating hate sites, comes to his understanding of race intuitively. She admits that they’ve had arguments, but these largely occur when Frederick perceives racism towards Aisha that she herself doesn’t see.
When asked to speculate about the relationship between their intellectual interest in racial conditions and their relationships, Phyllicia talks animatedly about “the sexual marketplace,” citing the disproportionately high number of African American men in prison, the disproportionately low number in post-secondary education and the overwhelming preference of black men for lighter skinned or white women. Sharon, whose work is less invested in the issue of race, responds to a slightly different question, stating that it’s simply a fact that the more educated a black woman is, the more likely she will be with a non-black man. Aisha declares, “It’s all a fucking mess.” Later she asks, “What did the other women say?”
Phyllicia says that Dylan needs to have the experience of being a father. “It might help with . . .” she says, then trails off. She is not concerned about raising a racially mixed child, stating that her child will be black. Aisha is ambivalent about the idea of having children, though she also insists that any child she has with Frederick will be black. She hesitates when asked what it would be like to raise children with Frederick, then says, “Let’s face it, Frederick is a child.” (“I heard that,” Frederick’s voice sails in from the living room).
Sharon says she wants a little girl because Peter will spoil her, and eagerly anticipates having a child with hair easier to manage than her own.
When asked if she loves Frederick, Aisha says yes, and then adds mysteriously that she “is sure that he will always be in my life.” She says she has no regrets about being with a white man “per se,” but will not specify further. Phyllicia says she loves Dylan because he is loyal. She says she has no regrets about choosing a white man for her life partner, but reveals that she misses one thing: listening to black music with black men. She has tried to explain the greatness of say, Earth, Wind and Fire or middle-period Isley Brothers to Dylan, but he insists that Bob Dylan (for whom he is not named) is superior to any black musician that ever walked the earth. “Which I suppose makes him a little bit of a white supremacist. But everybody’s a little bit white supremacist.” Phyllicia reluctantly admits that the one time she was almost unfaithful to Dylan, it involved sitting at the musty apartment of a fellow black male graduate student in the afternoons listening to records on the Tamla label.
Sharon says, “Look, everybody settles. That’s just true. And with my childhood, the thing that happened with my mother’s boyfriend when I was twelve, I just think, what is love to me?”
During one of our last interviews, after a long speech on the topic of love in the abstract, Aisha says, “I miss Robert.”
*All names have been changed.
Asali Solomon’s first novel, Disgruntled, will be published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux in February 2015. She received a Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers’ Award and was selected as a National Book Foundation “5 Under 35” for the stories in Get Down (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2006). Get Down was also featured as “This Week’s Must Read” on National Public Radio’s All Things Considered. Her stories and essays have appeared in The Kenyon Review, O: The Oprah Magazine, and the anthologies USA Noir: The Best of the Akashic Noir Series, Heavy Rotation: Twenty Writers On The Albums That Changed Their Lives, and Naked: Black Women Bare All About Their Skin, Hair, Hips, Lips, and Other Parts. She is an Assistant Professor of English at Haverford College.