Funny that while I was writing this section on authority, legitimacy and mentoring (an expectation of many Black female students, undergraduate and graduate, and one that I am not necessarily averse to) I came across Elizabeth Alexander's article, "Memory, Community, Voice," a paper given at the first Black Women in the Academy conference in 1994 and since published in Callaloo. (This was before I talked to Unni). My eye caught the line that Elizabeth Alexander quoted about a student of hers:
"Rho-Rho"? "Liz"? How sad that similarly belittling experiences helped reaffirm the sanity of my anger and confusion, and gave me a sense of pathetic consolation that I was not alone.
I ran into the student in my Black Women's History class who referenced me as "Rho" on campus about a week or so after her email. I hear someone yell, "Hey, girl." I looked. Hmmm. She spoke first, saying, "I know the proper way to address you is Professor Williams." HUH? I thought to myself ... well, why? ... never mind. Yes, the proper way to address me is Professor or Dr. Williams. As soon as those words slipped off my tongue, I felt pangs of guilt and discomfort.
She told me she dropped my course because she received verification that her eight-year old son was diagnosed with ADD (attention deficit disorder) two weeks into my class, and she had caught a cold, and ... And with all of that going on, working two jobs and being a widow, she just could not keep up with the reading. She said she hated to drop the course, that she was really learning a lot (which she did actually say in her "Rho-Rho" email) and asked me when I was teaching it again. Probably not for a couple years. I left that encounter even more unsettled than before.