Moving to higher education from high school teaching has afforded me the annual joy of a national conference each November. This year’s conference is in St. Louis, MO, and I spent my Saturday morning listening to writer Jacqueline Woodson.
When an early-career teacher and I were making plans for the conference, she noted Woodson would be talking, and I pointed out that Woodson was about my age — surprising my former student.
Woodson herself made a passing comment about looking much younger than her age, being born in 1963 just two years younger than I.
In most ways that we identify people, Woodson and I are unalike — race and gender the most obvious.
Woodson’s talk was engaging, beautiful as expected of a writer, but also equal parts kind and confrontational. She weaved a talk with stories of who she is as well as reading from her works.
Literature and writing, I share with Woodson, but we also have some geography in common — Woodson having lived for a while in Greenville, SC, where I now teach and only a thirty-minute drive from my home town.
While I am deeply and permanently Southern, Woodson stressed that she is a New Yorker, joking about how fast she talks now.
However, Woodson and I shared formative years, highlighted by her cultural references in her works that she noted young readers should be researching to understand the context of her references.
As Woodson read from Black Girl Dreaming, I was transported back to my youth. Woodson offers in “music”:
A skinny and deeply insecure white kid, I was enamored with The Ohio Players, and I can recall vividly being mesmerized by the word “funk” because it sounded so close to profanity and clearly was a powerful word that carries elements of sex and cool that were way beyond my realm of awareness, my lived experiences as a nerdy white boy.
During this period of my life, Wild Cherry’s “Play that Funky Music, White Boy” was a Top 40 hit, and I listened to raucous and theatrical groups such as Earth, Wind, and Fire, and Parliament-Funkadelic, fronted by flamboyant personalities like George Clinton and Bootsy Collins.
As I listened to Woodson quilting her talk with her published writing, I felt myself letting down my usual guard against all that defines me for other people; I felt community with her as well as the people laughing and nodding in the audience.
Unlike most of life these days in the U.S., that room felt safe and filled with peace — even as we were nested in St. Louis, a city now infamous for Ferguson and Michael Brown, the pervasive danger in the U.S. for those merely trying to live while being black.
Who are we? and What defines us? always sit just below the surface of my conscious self, a self ensconced in my whiteness, privilege, and being a man.
The first morning at the conference, as I was leaving a small coffee and breakfast shop, a woman asked where all the people outside were going. As I answered her, she interrupted me with “You are Southern” — an intense declaration that made me half expect her to back away as if redneck is contagious.
I thought about this encounter when Woodson took questions from students, one of which asked her if she were afraid of moving back to the South.
She replied that she wouldn’t move back South but “it ain’t cause I’m scared” — although, she added, she would be concerned for the safety of her family.
Like me, Woodson is projecting her fear around those she loves; unlike me, Woodson, simply due to all the ways she is unlike me, is aware that she does have much to fear, all that I am shielded from by my privileges.
Woodson’s talk catapulted me back to my teen years and the transformational power of “funk” — the word and the music — in my tentative white boy life.
As an aging (old?) white man, I am now more acutely aware of the alternative meaning of “funk” — to be in a funk, to be weighed down by the world, our fears, our fears in the name of the ones we love.
Joy and that funk reside together in my heart and bones as I think of my granddaughter — wild-haired, just a girl-child, innocent and fragile, bi-racial — and the delicate threads of my life linking me to all that is beautiful in this life despite all that is horrible.
“You have a right to be here fabulously,” Woodson told us at the beginning of her talk.
Yes we do, and I want so badly to hope that this is true.
God bless you, Jacqueline Woodson.