|January 31, 2002
Volume 32 Number 9
|A publication for the faculty, staff, administrators, and friends of California State University, Chico|
| 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.
Californias a good place. Take the job,
Giovanni said, and Butts did just that. Shes come across the country
to get here, and yet, it turns out, Chico isnt 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 minorsbiology, English, and
Spanish. She had Giovanni in her first year. In her junior year, while
taking womens and African American literature courses, she met Virginia
Fowler, coordinator of the masters 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 Morrisons
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 youre
dead, Butts explained, you cant 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 womens 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 didnt 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.
Shes 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 Ive 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,
Chicos first rent party at Selvesters Café.
The emulation of a Harlem Renaissance fund-raiser (traditionally a means
to raise rent money but, in this case, for Chicos homeless), replete
with food, music, poetry, and dance, was a charming success. To get involved
in next years 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,
Thomasin Saxe, College of Humanities and Fine Arts
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