INSIDE Chico State
0 January 31, 2002
Volume 32 Number 9
  A publication for the faculty, staff, administrators, and friends of California State University, Chico
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Inside

STORIES

From the President's Desk

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  From One Corner to Another

Tracy Butts, the new African American literature professor

Tracy Butts was sitting in a Virginia living room with her friend and teacher Nikki Giovanni last February when she got a phone call from Lynn Elliott, chair of the Department of English. Elliott asked her to join his faculty in the fall to teach African American literature, among other American literature courses.

“California’s a good place. Take the job,” Giovanni said, and Butts did just that. She’s come across the country to get here, and yet, it turns out, Chico isn’t such a stretch from what Butts is used to.

From her predominantly African American neighborhood in Norfolk, Virginia, Butts was bussed to public schools. Her mother and grandmother were the biggest influences in keeping her connected with black culture. Except for her Cher doll, Butts had only black dolls. She read a lot, mostly books by or about black people. She attended an academically prestigious high school set in an affluent white neighborhood from which she graduated in 1988. Butts planned to pursue medicine and had taken extra courses through a local hospital program.

Lack of housing at Howard University led Butts to attend her second-choice college, Virginia Tech in Blacksburg. Blacksburg is a nearly all-white town, “similar to Chico,” Butts said, “rural and pretty.” Tech has about 21,000 students, “mostly science nerds.” However, Butts soon left the notion of a health profession for a major in liberal arts with three minors—biology, English, and Spanish. She had Giovanni in her first year. In her junior year, while taking women’s and African American literature courses, she met Virginia Fowler, coordinator of the master’s in English program at Tech, from which Butts later earned her M.A. in 1994.

Then Butts immediately enrolled in the doctoral program at the University of Georgia in Athens, which was, finally, attended by a good-sized African American population. Butts’ dissertation “Boys in the Mother Hood” (2001), explores literary representations of black mother-son relationships. Around 1970, when Toni Morrison’s first novel, The Bluest Eye, was published, scholarly study began in earnest on mother-daughter relationships in black literature. Butts is breaking relatively new ground by looking at sons. And she applies some of her research in the first-year English courses she teaches here as they study the works of Ernest Gaines, Langston Hughes, and Tupac Shapur.

“Black maternal images in 20th-century literature are generally unflattering,” said Butts. “Mothers are portrayed as emasculating, controlling, and domineering. However, in slave narratives, it was different. For example, Frederick Douglass credits his mother with his desire to read. In slavery, children followed the condition of the mother: if the mother was a slave, so would be her children. Slave fathers were more likely to run away than slave mothers, who chose being with their children over freedom.

“So how did mothers, and women in general, later come to be vilified?” asked Butts. “Because black women compromised. Their first priority was to teach their children how to survive, part of which meant to avoid becoming too familiar with whitepeople.” For boys, said Butts, this meant curbing their masculinity, aggressiveness, and curiosity. The men came to feel ‘less than,’ even though their mothers’ goal was to keep them alive. The men were typically feeling they would rather die men than be brought down by another culture. The mothers only wanted their sons to achieve adulthood. “If you’re dead,” Butts explained, “you can’t effect change.”

In the height of the Civil Rights Movement in 1965, Butts said, the publishing of the controversial Moynihan Report on “Negro family life” found that black women’s tendency toward being “domineering” was causing their husbands to leave home, which, allegedly, contributed to delinquency among black children.

“Black women took a lot of flak in those days. You didn’t find any women on the platforms giving speeches in the movement,” said Butts.

The sharp insights that come with Butts’ field of study are softened by her personal style: warm, low key, and patient. She’s planning to publish some journal articles and then begin turning “Boys in the Mother Hood” into a book. “So far,” Butts said, smiling, “the only thing I’ve done with my dissertation is move it from one corner to another in my apartment. It was in the way.”

Last December, Butts and her students inaugurated CSU, Chico’s first “rent party” at Selvester’s Café. The emulation of a Harlem Renaissance fund-raiser (traditionally a means to raise rent money but, in this case, for Chico’s homeless), replete with food, music, poetry, and dance, was a charming success. To get involved in next year’s rent party, call Butts at x5151.

Butts will be offering the Humanities Center symposium “Black Mothers and Sons” on March 15 in Trinity 126. For more information on this event, call Sarah Pike, coordinator of the HC symposia, at x6341.

Thomasin Saxe, College of Humanities and Fine Arts

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