Marcia Ann Gillespie
Editor-in-Chief, Ms. Magazine
"Building Civil And Diverse Campus Communities"
The -ISM (N.) Faculty Institute
Keynote Address (Transcript)
Friday, May 31, 1996
I'm delighted to be here. I wish I could be here the rest of the weekend with you, because the half-day, (even though it feels like a full day, it was a full half-day) that I've spent so far has just made me hungry for more. Unfortunately, I have to get on the plane tomorrow morning and go back to New York, so I can be down in Washington for the march*, so please forgive me.
In spirit I'll be with you.
. . . .I wish I thought you could hear me without this [microphone] but I'll stand here for the moment and maybe drift off.
When Tony [Deifell, Executive Producer] called, and said, "Do you want to do the speech?" I kind of went, "I don't really know. I don't think so. I'm closing an issue--can we talk next week when the issue is closed?" Of course, it's still not closed, Tony. And we went through a list of potential things for me to talk about.
He said, "Well you've been working on this textbook that's supposed to go to junior high school students on the history of the women's movement. And perhaps you'd like to talk about how 'isms ' have come into play with the book." But the biggest ism that has come into play with this book would be the one which I call "they-can't-make-up-their-minds-ism." [The book is] a part of a series on social changes--women's movement, lesbian/gay movements, civil rights movement, etc. And there I was, you know, busily getting the research together and then they stop the project. And so everybody is kind of waiting to hear, "Do we start again?"
So I have very little to report except that they stopped the project. So we checked that one off. . . .then he kept going through the list, and finally I just sort of made up a topic--you know, "I'm going to talk about this--", knowing I probably wouldn't do it. So forgive me, Tony, because it's a little kind of "some of the above."
One of the things I think is really important in this work that we do, is that we know we all need to kind of talk about who we are, where we come from, you know, what is the baggage that we bring into the place with us.
Well some of it you can see. I mean I'm female, I'm African American, I'm over f-f-f-fifty. I do a size 14, which can make me either one of the larger women in the room, or one of the smaller depending on which room you're in. You know what I mean? I'm not the tallest of people. Nor am I the brightest. I'm someplace in the middle [and I] got lucky. And I'm a feminist which in some quarters in this country can be the ultimate "F-word."
Now of course, we could go on.
I'm from a working class family, who got sent to college, and managed to change class, like so many people in this country, which is where I want to segue into the official beginning of my speech:
Ours is a country which has been based on movements. We talk about often the history of this country and this place in these broad strokes, which usually encompass the movement of groups of people. People from Europe, people from Africa, people from different parts of the world. Some by choice. Some not by choice. Some by accident. We talk about the displacement of people, the people who were native to this land.
We talk about the kinds of movements which I call the ones that have created the whole cottage industry of books that are called the "up books." You know--"up from poverty," "up from slavery," up from something to a higher place. Because one of the things that America has always pushed has been this idea of movement that would take you from one place, someplace lower to someplace higher. So that we love those books that speak about the up to success, whatever it requires.
But lately in the 90s, we've also done a lot of, I call it, discussion of the movements down. The ones that talk about "How I slid" into despair and depression, into drugs, into denial, into something. But hopefully, there's a happy ending in which somehow you find one was transformed and saved. Another kind of movement. The movement or transformation or "I found Jesus," or whoever it is that one's found who lifted one's spirit, and put one on a higher road.
One of the things that all of these movements have had in common is that you get some stories and not others. We get--what I call--a version of the story of movement often which becomes the "whole story," as far as people are concerned. This one person's experience becomes it all. Horatio Alger's story becoming the story of how everybody is supposed to climb. Which becomes the model for all of these people who go around the country, making kazillions of dollars, you know, doing these kind of inspirational, motivational speeches about how "Yesterday, I was poor, and the day after that I got to be a multimillionaire. And you can too."
We have the stories on top of stories. And it's only once we stop to remember that those may become a kind of archive. But that within all of these movement stories there are the thousands upon thousands upon thousands of stories that are never told. And those stories sometimes don't quite fit the picture that we have. But they are each a part of the process. We often stumble upon them.
Or because from where we sit, our experiences of what being in this society is like have been so dramatically different. So. . .as an African American person, I've read the "Up from Slavery" story. And though I knew the Sojourner Truth story, it's other stories of movements, personal ones, that began to shape my vision of what it meant to be an African American person in this room.
In this room, in this country, in this world.
And they were the family stories. You know the stories that maybe my grandmothers used to tell on the front porch, you know what I mean? Late at night, they would be the stories I eavesdropped on, that the adults were talking about after they thought the kids had gone to sleep. They were the kitchen stories that the women told each other when the men were out of the room. There were a lot of different stories that didn't get into print, weren't the stuff, when I was growing up, that were part of the films or the lore, but they helped to give me some sense of "This is what it means to be an African American person. . . ." Knowing, yet not knowing it at that time, but coming to understand that all those stories as they shaped me were also sometimes silencing me.
. . . . And something else of course, one begins to learn, and that was that in the midst of the two, in a country in which people who looked like me have been so silenced for so long, there becomes--I call it--that other story that you feel like you never get to tell. And that is the one that is not heard by those people who seem to have the control of the books, and the control of the television, and the control of the film, which was about, "Hey, this has been painful. This has been difficult. There has been racism, there has been oppression, I need to tell you what the story has been like. Not just for me but for you."
So I mean there is all this kind of--I call it--angst and push and pull with the story. And something else that begins to happen, part of the movement has always been that one group has always been more special than another in the movement story. The cowboys are more special than the Indians, the pioneer man story much more important than the pioneer woman story. She was only there to sit in the wagon and say "Yeah, Pa. I'm here with the children, but you're out there slaving away." So one never gets any sense of what pioneer women did. Except that they rode in the wagon and kind of stood steadily by their guys.
So we get some kinds of stories but what happens of course is that in this [we get] the sense of what oppression does. Because we keep looking to find ways for all the subtext, all the nuances of our stories to get played out. And we begin to think things like I do. So I'm going to do a personal tale about how I've come to do some of this work of, you know--diversity--and what I think I'm learning in the process because it is a process. I think like a lot of people who are African American and of my particular generation, one of the things that I know that shaped me was the fact that I saw our suffering and our struggle in stark relief.
I grew up hearing about this long journey of changing, changing, changing America, making it a better place. I grew up hearing the kinds of statements that are echoed by many oppressed groups all over the world about their oppression. "Really we're better than they are." Really that somehow or the other this suffering has transformed us into something very, very special. And what we just have to do is keep proving how special we are, and keep pushing and everything is going to be okay. It creates a kind of conceit because it also, usually, it takes on another level of greater morality, a greater humanity. That somehow the suffering has really shaped us in a way that is more profound and more spiritually whole than those of the other people.
. . . .And during the civil rights movement, what we were talking about was this, this struggle that had been set in place from the moment that first ship landed with African people on the shore about what was going to happen to this group of individuals who had formed a subset in this society.
And so the civil rights struggle became this struggle about those of us who had been taught that through this oppression we had a larger spiritual mission. It was no accident, of course, that that struggle was couched into spiritual terms. It's what we believe. It's what we came from. And along with it, came for me, this sense of--there is a world, it's a black and white world and we are caught in this heavy struggle in which somehow or the other, I'm more special.
And I can recall being the editor of Essence magazine one time and we were writing an editorial. And in this editorial, I don't know what had gotten into me that day--you sometimes you read back and you try to figure out, "What got to you the night you were writing this?" But anyway, I was filled with outrage about the suffering inflicted up on Black women. The rapes, the... Boom! I just laid it all out on the page. And the editorial went out, and lots of letters came back from readers saying, "You go girl! You're right. Boy, we have suffered. Nobody knows what Black women have suffered."
And then this letter came across my desk.
And it was written by a woman who lived on a reservation in the Dakotas, who said to me "How, how could you do that? I know that Black women have suffered, but so have Indian women. Do you know what our history is like? How could you suddenly say that your suffering is more than, than ours? Why do you have this need to make one more, more special than another. We have all been pained."
I sat, and I must have read that letter five times.
And I cried.
I was so ashamed of myself.
It was like suddenly somebody had turned a light on.
That I had realized it was on.
I was internalizing and had acted on that kind of internalization of the very things that I've said were the marks of the oppressor, because I had decided there were only two people in the room.
There were Black people and there were White people.
And what this letter reminded me of was that there were more than two people in the room.
And that the discussion of the issues had a lot more going on than just what had happened between African American people and European American people.
So I always talk about the fact that I got my "wake up call" through being ashamed and embarrassed.
But the exciting thing about it was that once it made me do that, it made me also go and start reading some books.
Because while I had been busily reading about the experience of African people in the new world, and I had to hear everything about the experience it seemed to be about European peoples in the new world, I'd forgotten that there were a lot of other people here. Latinos and Latinas, Native American people, Asian people. That I had no idea that there was a place called Angel Island, that I had no understanding of what that history meant.
That I somehow missed what it meant to be taken out of your home and put in settlement camps during the Second World War because you were Japanese American, and have everything taken away from you.
That I had therefore been as guilty of myopia as all of the quote/unquote "rednecks," I wanted to brand and dismiss.
It was about this point in my life that I began to understand something which I think that you are all very much in tune with because you're here.
And that is that what we're engaged in is as much a journey in which we have to do serious and constant decrudding as it is a journey in which we move to gain things.
That we are in process of having to unlearn and give up some things that we feel on some level have almost privileged our existence.
No matter how quote/unquote "bleak," it may have been, no matter how depressing it might have been, [it] still privileged us.
We have to give up some of those things to understand that here we all are on this fragile, little, little sphere, hurling through space and we all have stories to tell.
Stories of want and neglect.
Stories of hopes and dreams and thwarted ambitions and, and great plans and, and things that happened wonderfully and things that didn't.
And to the extent that we can allow ourselves to engage in the struggle of really hearing and seeing will be to the extent that this which I consider to be perhaps the greatest movement of all will succeed.
Now I will tell you, I don't know about the rest of you, but I can tell you, it is hard.
I don't know, maybe somebody has found it easier than I have.
It's hard because every time I really feel like "Oh, I've got it now, my PC-speak is really right on the money", something comes along and goes, "Hello!"
So that for me, what I laugh about was when I was asked to become the Editor-in-Chief of Ms. Magazine, I described myself as a "rock-and-roll feminist."
Which to my mind means, I don't get but so serious about all the things that make a feminist because sometimes I'm not sure that I know what some of my girlfriends are talking about.
But that's okay, I know the basics.
Economic, social and political equality.
But as the editor of this magazine, Ms. Magazine, I realized I had to really keep learning.
So, I think we're doing okay, and then suddenly I get this letter from the animal rights feminist, who says, "You showed a photograph of Julie Krohn riding this horse in some derby and you haven't stopped to understand that. . .that's oppression of an animal?" No I hadn't. I saw a woman riding a horse to victory and wasn't this great?
Whereupon, she sends me all these tracts to read about this and I have to stop and start thinking about this. Then you get into this thing, where you say to yourself, "Well if we're really going to manage this issue of diversity well, what we have to do is make sure that the staff reflects what you're talking about."
And you struggle with the idea that you don't want to start doing what I call "paint by the numbers." If there are 20 slots, you've got to make sure that two of those go to this person, and two go to this type and two go to the other because we have, and we've struggled with this. In my first year at Ms., we also ended up doing sometimes (and maybe you find the same thing happening in your life) another version of integration.
Where you bring in what you consider to be the "others," but you don't necessarily give those others any real voice. And/or in bringing in the others and saying, "Well, we're all going to be moving together." [But] you don't also [acknowledge] the fact that it is more than cosmetic. That is--are you prepared to have people who have diametrically divergent points of view in the room and at the table? And if you say you are, how does that go, how does it play out? How does it play out in the room? Does it play out [such] that everybody troops in for the meetings and yet, because the hierarchy is already established, some people know that they are there only for window dressing, while others know that they are there because they have the power to think? Who talks and who always listens? And how do you, I want to call it, "deprivilege" yourself especially when you are in the role of being the one that everybody says can talk, to encourage other people to listen, and to give up power?
This kind of struggling at least that I find myself in, is one that I realize though is going on all over this country to one degree or another. Whether [or not] we want to be honest about it. And to the degree that it does go on, is to the degree that we're failing in the work that we're setting out doing.
Now sometimes. . .in trying to run what I call one of these roundtable organizations, sometimes I think to myself, "Lord, if we have one more meeting. If we have one more meeting I am just going to scream." Because it seems that you spend like an inordinate amount of time meeting when you just want to say "Look, let's just do it this way, end of story, I don't want to hear anymore." And there are times when I admit, I give up and say "Hey, girlfriend we really gotta finish closing this issue, we've been talking about this thing for a day and a half, can we not move forward?" That's part of the role.
But I think that the other part of the role is to be willing to engage in what is often seemingly a time consuming struggle to get people heard. Because part of what I have seen, in this part of my life, has been that though I think of the meetings as. . .still very time consuming, they in fact, over time, have taken less time. Because what we needed to do in those first meetings was simply let the story be told. So that people felt that they really were being validated enough, that they had the time to express themselves and didn't feel rushed.
The other part of it though that I'm learning, and constantly learning about the struggle is that it's almost so easy to fall back into old notions. It's so easy to decide that the one Asian person over there should speak for all Asians, when that person is a Korean-American and may be able to tell you about what her individual Korean American experience was, but she certainly is not the expert on the entire population of Asia and Southeast Asia. And we should not put her in that position, nor should we be so ridiculous as to even assume that any one person should do that.
But it's so easy to fall into those patterns because those are the patterns this country has established. And those are still the patterns that get affirmed and reaffirmed time and again. Because one of the things I realize from being part of that group is often [the statement], "Oh, you're the one colored girl in the room, and you can speak for colored girls," not only is it terribly infuriating, but it is also very conflicting. Because you almost feel like honor bound, duty bound to speak. Because you feel if you don't then an opportunity for any kind of understanding is lost.
What we have to do is not make people feel that everything that comes out of their mouth has to be so heavily weighted. That you don't have to open your mouth and speak for the community, you can just speak for your own colored self, or your own semi-colored self, or your own tall self, or your own I-woke-up-evil-this-morning-self. Whatever that self is.
Now, the other part of it that I am learning in this process is something that we just did right this moment. And that is we can't lose our sense of humor. We can't forget the fact we are going to. . .sometimes, I know I'm going to, make a perfect "'A'-you-know-what" of myself. It wasn't intended -- but foot goes into mouth and it sometimes goes really deeply. So, I've been in meetings with animal rights activists, and I've been really being correct, and then I'll say something like, "skinning a cat." I didn't mean it, but it'll come out.
What I'm saying is that we will, we will make mistakes. No one is perfect in this work. Or in the living. Period. What we have to be willing to do is to forgive ourselves for the mistakes that we make, and allow for the fact that just as we may make mistakes, others do as well.
And then we need to learn to laugh. Because if we lose that sense of "Hey!", as I said to a reporter just two weeks ago, . . .um, okay, here's a perfect example of one of those things.
On the current issue of Ms. Magazine--this way you'll run out and buy it, we need every person to--we have the dubious distinction of having spelled "feminism" wrong. Big letters, okay, big letters.We didn't notice it. Somebody from the outside, like a reader, called up to say, "By the way, do you know you spelled 'feminism' wrong?"
I was on a trip. I got a phone call in the hotel, from an art director, and I could tell from her voice--you know when you hear that sound that someone has died? So I said to her, "Who died?" She said, "We spelled feminism wrong." I said, "We did, where?" "On the cover." "That's amazing," I tell her, "hold the phone." I go and dig out my copy. You know you always carry one copy, though this one I'm not carrying around the country, so I can't show it to you. Anyway I pull it out and I look at it, and I go "I don't see it. It looks right to me. " Obviously it looked right to me all through the whole process. And then she pointed out that we added an extra "i." So we spelled it "f-e-m-i-n-i-s-i-m." Feminisim, Okay? And she said to me, "What can we do? It's too late." It was printed, it was already distributed. And I just started to laugh.
When the phone started to ring in the office that Monday morning, as I knew it would, the Wall Street Journal, bless their hearts, [called] to ask about this. They never asked me about any of the other good stuff we've ever done, but this they would call up on. And so this woman said to me, "So well, how did it happen?" I said, "Do you know girlfriend, shit happens." You know, shit happens.
What I've finally come to [is] if you don't laugh about the stuff that doesn't go well, you're not going to be able to enjoy the work.
Stuff will happen.
You will become depressed.
I become depressed.
We will make mistakes.
People don't always get it the way we want them to, whatever that is.
As if our way is necessarily the only one there.
What the real thing about the work that we are engaged in is it has such joy at its heart.
Because what we are allowing, for the first time, is that flag, with all those stripes--the red and white stripes--to suddenly become a wonderful quilt. In the true sense of, as David Dinkins, my former mayor of New York said, "a gorgeous mosaic."
In which we are giving people who have hungered for voice, an opportunity to tell their story. And in telling their stories, and in talking about the way that other people's worries and sense of the world have shaped and sometimes misshaped them,
. . .we are in process of enriching and fulfilling the promise of what democracy is supposed to be.
We the people.
We the people.
We the people.
So I'm here to tell you that "me one people," as we say in Jamaica, "me one" am so happy that I happened to have the good fortune to have been born in this country, at this particular time, because it is at this particular time that the whole shape of what a democratic society truly looks like--is going to be cast and written.
And we are doing it at a time when many people have moved out to react in fear about the changes that they see. Instead of embracing the great wave, new wave of immigration that has happened in these last 10-15 years, [they] are trying to close the doors, and pull down the shutters and pretend it didn't happen. Are trying to silence people who have just started to find their voice. I am convinced and I hope that you are, that regardless of how much they may try, this process will not be stopped. This process cannot be stopped. Because when people first begin to find their voices, it is the most powerful and the most empowering and the most life-changing thing in the world. You can't turn it back. It becomes a force of nature. And isn't it wonderful to be part, I want to call it, of the "nature brigade," in the best way.
So I salute you.
I want to tell you that I'm really happy and if we misspell feminism again, I don't know if I'll laugh quite as hard, but I certainly will try to find my sense of humor.
If you find that there are times in this work when you're feeling really depressed, and you just want to chuck it, turn on the radio.
Get to play your favorite record.
If you don't have one, find one.
Dance your butt off.
Laugh a little bit.
Kick out and then go back and remember the words that you've been hearing from the students that you work with, as they begin to grapple with "Who am I, what does it mean to be alive today, who is that person sitting over there, and that one over there? How do I feel about all these isms and issues, and how can I really become engaged in the business of being a whole human being, a whole human being, in a wholly evolving society?"
So thank you very much for letting me be with you tonight.
* The June 1 Stand for Children in Washington, DC.