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By Koritha Mitchell
In November 2001, right before I began writing my dissertation, I experienced one of the defining moments of my life. I had recently become ABD (all but dissertation) by passing my qualifying exams and had learned of an upcoming symposium at Princeton University in honor of Claudia Tate, the author of Domestic Allegories of Political Desire, one of the literary studies that impressed me most while studying for my exams. I don’t know how I heard about the symposium, but I immediately arranged for another graduate student to teach my classes so that I could leave College Park, Maryland early in the morning and drive to Princeton, New Jersey. All of my colleagues knew where I was headed, but I made the three and half-hour drive alone. The car could’ve been full, though, because I had the words of Claudia Tate, Ann duCille, Hazel Carby, Hortense Spillers, Deborah McDowell, and many others in my head from months of intensive study. With each mile, I grew more excited!
I knew these critics only through their writing, so my heart stopped when Professor Tate entered the auditorium accompanied by an oxygen machine. The talks that day were rigorous and personal. Clearly, everyone had agreed that the best way to honor Tate’s work was to present quality work themselves. The personal emerged in several ways. I remember Hazel Carby saying that her generation of scholars must tell the next generation the truth—much of it painful—about what it took to pave the path for us. Also, many shared stories about being in graduate school with Tate or being mentored by her years later. I could feel the joy and gratitude in the room as well as the effort some exerted by holding back their tears.
I left that event determined to continue my scholarly journey. That gathering marked the beginning of my creating an ideal mentor, a composite role model. The people I encountered represented different strategies for becoming and remaining a productive scholar, committed mentor, and engaged citizen. Because this symposium shaped my development, I see myself as a black feminist scholar who is part of a tradition that is based on 1) a commitment to remaining aware of the work that has made present conditions possible and 2) an equal concern for how one’s own work will affect the future.
This tradition may be best understood in the framework that Ann duCille set out in her seminal essay “The Occult of True Black Womanhood” (Signs, 1994). In short, that framework is a critical demeanor that neither relegates black women to a “hyperstatic alterity” nor marginalizes black women as subjects or as scholars. I am particularly drawn to this concept as a performance theorist because critical demeanor calls attention to one’s stance as both physical manifestation and metaphor, as an observable posture and a less concrete (but unmistakable) attitude and approach.
Understanding the importance of critical demeanor, I refuse to should all over myself, and I am quite unapologetic about that refusal.
Women are bombarded with messages that we should do all kinds of things. We should put others before ourselves. Further, we should want to put others before ourselves. In fact, we are encouraged to believe that prioritizing our own interests, desires, goals—even our own health—is unnatural and certainly not feminine. Everyday, we are told in countless ways that we should feel good about being called “selfless.” In short, despite the price we pay in terms of emotional and physical health, black women, especially, are encouraged to should all over ourselves.
Don’t we know better? Don’t we know that there is widely applicable wisdom in the flight attendant’s advice: “secure your own mask before assisting others”?
Refusing to should all over myself is a way of acknowledging that black women are dynamic, complex, and human. We are not best understood—and we do not best understand ourselves—through static models such as the strong black woman or the selfless caregiver.
The strong black woman and selfless caregiver have become archetypes, powerful images that most of us find compelling. For this reason, these images deserve critical attention of the sort offered by Trudier Harris in Saints, Sinners, Saviors (2001) and Melissa Harris-Perry in Sister Citizen (2011). Both archetypes emerge from shoulds. You know, a real black woman should be able to topple all obstacles. It might be smart to embrace this should, many of us assume, because a black woman will certainly encounter more than her fair share of roadblocks. Likewise, a black woman should be the first to want to “give back” because none of us could be where we are without the sacrifices of others.
As much as these messages resonate with me, they cannot erase this truth: doing something because you should sets you up for resentment and/or self-righteousness. Resentment emerges whenever a beneficiary does not express gratitude exactly as the should-er deems appropriate. Without consciously realizing it, some people assume that their doing something for another means that the beneficiary “owes” them. When the debt is not acknowledged as the should-er sees fit, she feels unappreciated and judges the beneficiary as ungrateful and self-centered. Whenever I’m tempted to see beneficiaries in that way, I ask myself: is that accurate or was I motivated more than I realized by an expectation of shaping someone else’s behavior?
Should-ers do not just resent beneficiaries, though. Should-ers often become resentful when they see someone else refuse to take something on, especially when it is something that the should-er did but wishes that she had not done, because she didn’t really want to do it and really couldn’t afford to do it.
Should-ing can lead to self-righteousness as much as resentment. For too many of us, it is important to do what we should because it makes us feel like a good person. But how do you know a good person when you see one? Certainly, black feminist scholars realize that racism, sexism, and other ideologies affect everyone’s judgment regarding who is or is not a good person. Even our view of ourselves is not immune to assumptions about how modest, nurturing, and selfless women should be.
Especially given that reality, I am arguing for a crucial shift in attitude and approach, and I make this argument with not only Claudia Tate, but also Barbara Christian, Nellie McKay, and too many others in mind. There is a world of difference between operating out of a desire to “pay it forward” and doing something because “someone did it for you, so you should do it for others.” Ultimately, the former comes from a vision of what one wants to contribute to the world and the latter springs from obligation. I am too busy trying to make a contribution to worry that if I don’t do something when others think I should, then someone will see me as less than generous and therefore as less than a good person.
Let’s get real: most of us are going to work hard and “give back” no matter what. Not wanting to “give back” is not most women’s problem. Our problem is giving to our own detriment. It is not a question of whether you will work hard. You will. The question is whether you will spend most of your time doing work that energizes you and that aligns with your vision for yourself or will you work on things that drain you and have little to do with your vision.
When faced with this choice, a powerful truth emerges: you need to have a vision for yourself! Surprise, surprise: that takes work, too. Often, we let shoulds replace doing the work of figuring out what our vision is. Remember, you will work hard regardless, but developing one’s vision seems to be the work that some of us would rather not do. It is far easier to let shoulds lead the way and then judge those who don’t bow to shoulds as selfish and self-centered.
What does this refusal to should all over myself look like in practical terms? Above all, it manifests as a commitment to drawing boundaries and saying “no.” Is this easy? Of course not, especially not in academia, where everything is structured around favors and unpaid labor. The difficulty does not make it any less crucial, however.
Saying “no” is like exercise: no one can do it for you.
When do you say “no”? The answer must come from your vision for yourself and the contribution you want to make and from knowing your limits. If a task does not fit into your vision or it is beyond your capacity, then saying “no” is the sane and healthy response. Period.
Just as you need a vision for yourself, you also need to know yourself—your strengths, weaknesses, etc. I learned a long time ago that I am simply not smart enough to give my time and energy indiscriminately and still do work that makes me proud. I know a few people who can do precisely that. They seem to give, give, give to everyone and everything, and their work is still brilliant and thorough. I can’t do that. To me, there’s no shame in knowing that or admitting that. I also know that I’m not good at lowering my personal standards for my work. Given those realities, “no” is crucial.
Because saying “no” is so difficult, it is important to remember that it is not someone else’s job to censor themselves by not asking you to do things. I always tell people: “Never hesitate to ask if you think I can help with something. It’s your job to take initiative by drawing into yourself the resources and support that you need. It’s my job to say ‘no’ if I need to.”
Don’t take the approach that someone is putting you in a bad situation by asking. They are just asking. It is not their fault if you haven’t learned how to say “no” when necessary.
I know that I am advocating for an attitude and approach that is a privilege to adopt, but I embrace it as a gift that was hard won by those who came before me. I am determined to use my improved position—for which so many women paid—to benefit myself and others. I am sharing what I believe will improve the quality of our lives and will thereby position us to contribute our best. By encouraging you to avoid should-ing all over yourself, I aim to open possibilities rather than simply pass down shoulds as if they are a heritage worthy of the sacrifices of our forebears.
As a wise woman recently said to me: “My generation made those mistakes. The least you could do is make new ones.”
**Title phrase comes from Carrie Bradshaw of Sex and the City.
Koritha Mitchell is a literary historian and cultural critic who specializes in African American literature, racial violence throughout U.S. literature and contemporary culture, and black drama & performance. She examines how texts, both written and performed, have helped terrorized families and communities to survive and thrive. She is author of the award-winning book Living with Lynching: African American Lynching Plays, Performance, and Citizenship, 1890 – 1930 (University of Illinois Press, 2011). Mitchell earned her Ph.D. from the University of Maryland-College Park and is currently associate professor of English at Ohio State University. Mitchell’s essay “James Baldwin, Performance Theorist, Sings the Blues for Mister Charlie” appears in the March 2012 issue of American Quarterly. She maintains a blog, Kori’s Commentary, and she recently launched Black LIT Radio, a 10-minute monthly radio segment on African American literature. On Twitter, she’s @ProfKori.