|October 30, 2003
Volume 34 Number 4
|A publication for the faculty, staff, administrators, and friends of California State University, Chico|
Flip Side of Baltimore
Sociologist Finds Chico Worlds Away from Her East Coast Home
In her book- and trophy-lined Butte Hall office, Nandi SoJourn Asantewaa Crosby shakes an oversized binder bursting with papers. "This is my tenure review file," she says, giving it a detached inspection. "That's coming up this year, and I'm a bit nervous about it."
Nervousness is not on the list of qualities people who've met her would use to describe this sociologist and poet who grew up in Baltimore (one of the 10 largest cities in the United States and the only all-black city, Crosby says). A picture of confidence, Crosby sits at her desk, silver jewelry dangling from luxuriant dreadlocks, flanked by a keyboard and a sociology textbook that she's been updating on contract and a crushing deadline. Slap! A beringed hand descends on the fat text, registering her impatience. "I curse it every day," she declares.
But she looks forward to her evening class, Sociology of Popular Culture. "We're going to talk about pimp culture," Crosby explains. "I'm going to walk in with the letters P-I-M-P taped to my shirt and not say anything, just, 'Hey, what's up, pass your papers forward.' I'm going to write words on the board like 'pimp car,' or 'big pimpin',' or 'pimped-out jewelry' and have some discussion about what those things mean. And we'll watch the documentary American Pimp. It's a very sad depiction of what real-life pimping is about."
Five years into her teaching career at CSU, Chico, Crosby is relaxed enough to voice ambivalence about her position as one of only two black women faculty members on campus. It's a role that has become trying. In fact, when students ask her what it's like being black, with the apparent assumption she can speak for all black people in America, she tells them: "What's it like being black? In sociology, I'm the person who does gender and sexuality. I'm not the race person. That's the tall white guy down the hall. He could probably better answer your questions.'" A response that may cause these students to rethink their assumptions about race and ethnicity.
This stance has developed out of what she perceives as the state of denial most people on campus and in Chico seem to have about race. "My students tell me things like, 'There is no race problem; I don't see color; God loves everybody; my boyfriend's black,'" Crosby says. To which she responds, "You mean you didn't notice what color I was the first time I walked into this classroom?"
Crosby's childhood in Baltimore and her college and graduate school experiences in Atlanta, Georgia -- at Georgia State and Clark Atlanta University -- were spent in primarily black communities. "I spent my whole growing-up time in Baltimore immersed in race and ethnicity conversations, in an all-black community," Crosby says. "The whole assumption about culture in Chico is that race doesn't exist. There isn't the engagement in and openness about issues of race and ethnicity. It's the flip side of Baltimore."
At the same time, Crosby observes white Chicoans adopting bits of black culture in the form of rap music, lingo, and MTV, which leaves her shaking her head. "On one hand, race doesn't exist -- on the other hand, kids say, 'It [race] is so hot, I'm going to buy it at the mall or MTV,'" says Crosby. "I'll be stopped at a red light and hear loud rap music and look over and see some 18-year-old white kid singing along and keeping the beat on the steering wheel, and I feel like I'm in the twilight zone."
What bothers Crosby most, she says, is people adopting the trappings without any understanding of what the black experience in America is really like. "Everything but the 'Burden'," she says, referring to the title of a book published in recent years that describes this co-opting of black culture by white America.
Before beginning her graduate studies, Crosby worked as a correctional officer at a state prison in Maryland. Her interest in women's studies stems from an ongoing examination of prison culture, the hows and whys of which still obsess her. "When I left that job," she recalls, "I thought, 'That was a horrible experience.' At the time, I knew there was something about my being a woman that was significant in terms of how I experienced that place. So I got interested in women's studies and what it meant personally."
As a doctoral student at Clark Atlanta, Crosby was drawn to black feminist thought. Her questioning of some assumptions of the black feminist movement at the time, including how interested and involved black men were in the movement, led to her doctoral thesis: "The Souls of Black Men: Male Discourse and Its Critical Implications for Rethinking Black Feminist Thought." Her thesis, rooted in her life experiences, was that black men were bound up in their own issues of liberation (The Million Man March, the number of young black men in prison, etc.) and didn't have the interest or time for black women's issues. Her research supported her thesis.
This semester, Crosby is also teaching Introduction to Women's Studies and a special topics course she developed called Healing and Liberation. The design of the course came out of thinking about women and empowerment and getting students to ask questions: Why aren't young women empowered? What is the source of oppression? How do you heal oppression? How are knowledge, healing, and activism related?
The students have read Paulo Friere's Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Sacred Woman by Queen Afua, and a packet of materials on activism put together by Crosby. The course activities include setting personal goals concerning something that has, up to this time, acted as a hindrance; working with a partner and keeping a journal about progress toward the goals; and experimenting with various healing approaches suggested in Sacred Woman.
Personnel procedures, teaching, scholarly activities -- that's the academic Crosby. The artist Nandi Crosby is at home on the stage as a poet and a dramatic reader who has won more than 50 awards for her performances. She has hosted and performed in Spoken Word performances, the most recent on Oct. 10.
Taran March and Kathleen McPartland
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