Toby S. Jenkins, Professor, George Mason University
What do you love most about being a Black woman?
First and foremost, I love my culture. For me, culture has always been much more of a life foundation than a collection of rituals, symbolic practices, and artistic expression. Culture is the mental strength and confidence that allows me to look in the mirror and love my black skin. My healthy and positive sense of self is undoubtedly an appreciation for the culture that I represent—I love being an African American woman. I am energized by the audacity, strength, sassiness, humility, and diligence that being an African American woman embodies.
Who or what inspires you most?
Without hesitation–my parents. My dad worked 3 jobs to support our family–to give me a life that allowed me to go on to earn a PhD. I always remember how hard he worked in mills, factories and as a janitor picking up other people’s trash to feed his family. And so I never complain about being too tired to give it my all…I never have an attitude that Im too good for anything. What I also know for sure is that I have inherited a value for motherhood, family, and culture from the mothers who raised me. Our lives were starkly different. My grandmother was a wife in her mid-teenage years, my mother was wed at age nineteen, and I am still unmarried. By twenty-eight my grandmother had five children, by thirty my mother had two, and at thirty-seven I still have none. My grandmother worked domestically, making as her career the cultivation of five lives; my mother has been a stay-at-home mom and has also worked as a housekeeper, as a factory worker, and as a teacher’s aide. I have worked my entire adult life, have earned a Ph.D., and have made my professional home the university—an environment that neither of my mothers ever knew. Each generation of women in my family has known a different experience inside and outside the home. But I have made a firm commitment not to choose between the life that I have created for myself and the cultural legacy that I have inherited from these incredible women.
As a professional, educated woman, I value domesticity. I value the importance of a clean home and a healthy environment in which to live. So I am also domestic. I value the meaning behind cooking a good meal—the reward that we feel when we (literally) nourish our loved ones and they enjoy it. I appreciate the peace that I feel in preparing the meal and the rush I experience from unleashing my creativity right there in my home. So I cook, and I do it well. But most important, I understand deeply the incredible genius, sacrifice, humility, selflessness, and discipline that it takes to shoulder the responsibility for another person’s life. This sense of commitment to family is cultural for me. The women in my family have set an incredible bar—they have in many ways sacrificed their own lives, deferred their own dreams, and worked themselves into a lifetime of exhaustion just so that I could achieve my goals and live my life fully. They have taught me that love is not a sentiment; it is an action— every lesson taught, every room cleaned, every meal prepared, every disciplinary action made, every value imparted was an act of love.
The responsibility of sculpting and molding another soul is quite intimidating. Though I have three degrees, the only education that I have received on motherhood has been the model set by the women in my family. In many ways the role they have played as educators in our family has been an important one—they educated us about how to be a family, how to create what family is. Our families teach us valuable lessons from the day we are born. On our day of birth, the first lesson is unconditional love and self-sacrifice—only sheer love can drive the will to tear one’s body apart to bring a child into the world. I want to build on the foundation set by my mother and grandmother. I want to lay down an even greater legacy for my children and my community to inherit.
Advice for Black men and women?
Remember the spirit of our culture. I have a picture of a couple with a little girl right after emancipation. They are dressed in their Sunday best and carrying suitcases as they head off on their journey up north. I look at that picture and I see several things. I see a commitment to being excellent–who dresses in their Sunday best to walk to another state? Cultural pride, optimism, and hope cause you to show up at your best even when the road will be long and hard. I also see a commitment to family. Contrary to popular opinion–black folks do value family–they do love one another. It makes me remember the fact that when slaves were freed men would walk miles to find wives that had been sold to other plantations–a true commitment to their love bond. We need to remember that. I also have a picture of a little boy passed out among cotton –worn out after a hard, long day picking cotton. He is about 10. I have always kept that picture on my wall–in college and now as a professional. It reminds me that I am so blessed to work in beautiful offices, on beautiful campuses, doing work that I love. So many people have worked so hard so that we can live full lives–how dare we fail to live up to our true potential. That little boy could have been a brilliant thinker or a talented artist. He was robbed of that opportunity…so we need to actualize all of our talents and not waste away living lives of mediocrity.
What are you working on that we need to check out?
I have a book being released on February 15th. It is titled, “My Culture, My Color, My Self: Heritage, Resilience, and Community in the Lives of Young Adults.” Understanding our cultural heritage and sharing a cultural community’s history helps motivate individuals to take agency and create change within their communities. But are today’s youth appreciative of their culture, or apathetic towards it? We often imagine our cultural historians, storytellers, and griots to be elders—those that have lived long lives with deep meaning. But the seeds of insight and wisdom don’t take very long to grow. Whether due to the nurturing sources of the sun and rain (family love and encouragement) or because of toxic pesticides (poverty and oppression) our young flowers grow up fast. And they have incredible stories to tell. The voices and cultural experiences of young adults need to be heard. However, across many ethnicities today, folks often wonder if younger generations have what it takes to keep culture alive. Culture is not simply an individual experience– there is a strong sense of group ownership and history. And the group is becoming increasingly worried about the sustainability and future outlook of their cultural heritage. The torch is still burning, but many older generations are worried that young people may not have the stamina and training to keep the fire lit. Heritage inspires more than pride it inspires leadership. Cultural leadership compels us to remember and appreciate a culturally driven life ethic—a sense of community, a drive to create and imagine, and a value for making time to tell the story. In this book, I illustrate that young people today not only have ideas and perspectives on culture, but they have also lived truly incredible and awe-inspiring lives.
The book is available for pre-order online:
Where can we find you online?