For my oral history project, I decided to interview a professor here at Loyola Marymount University. Rosalynde is currently working as an assistant professor of dance in the College of Communication and Fine Arts and has been for the past 5 years. I was drawn to her for this project because I am a dance minor at LMU so I have heard of her many great successes within the dance community. I wanted to take this opportunity to learn more about her personal life and the inspirations that led her to become the woman that she is today. After our interview, the main issue that I wanted to discuss deals with racism and that it is present in many different forms that often stems from the origin and family background of an individual. I also will discuss how a person can be molded by the experiences, ideas, and culture that surrounds them. The overall idea that I want to the viewer/reader to take away is that each of us are all unique individuals with completely different intersectionalities that make up who we are as people. These differences need to be accepted and celebrated in order to create a more equal and peaceful world.
Working Class Mother
Rosalynde and her brother primarily grew up under her mother’s care in Baltimore, Maryland. Her parents got divorced when she was 3 years old so she only ever remembers her mother alone as a single mom. She taught in the dance department at a local university, just as Rosalynde does now. So talent in the arts definitely runs in the family.
When asked about her mother’s influence on her life, she drew a parallel between Rosie the Riveter and her mother. She explained how her mother was a woman who got all her kids to school with their lunches, drove them to soccer and gymnastics, while reaching her own success at work. Not having a second income to fall back on, her mother had to work extra hard in order to provide for her family. While our country has made strides towards bettering the rights for women workers since the Great Depression era when working women “had allegedly abandoned their true calling of motherhood and housework for… a little extra money for frivolities,” there is still a negative stigma attached to a mother who chooses to work instead of be a ‘stay-at-home mom’ (Fredrickson 22). This stigma stems from the white supremacy capitalist patriarchy where men are the sole breadwinners and women are meant to stay home raise the children and maintain domestic responsibilities. Working single-parent women are not at work just too get a little more money for themselves, they are working in order to give their children food, shelter, and other daily needs.
Unfortunately for Rosalynde’s mother, and countless others, they did not go to work out of choice, but rather out of necessity. Rosalynde’s mother didn’t see being a single mom as a punishment or burden. It was a choice, her choice. She knew that staying married to her husband, the father of her children, was not a healthy environment for anybody and she embraced being a free and single woman. This impacted Rosalynde because it has impressed upon her “the idea that a woman can be single and in some instances should be single if a man is not wanting to facilitate her becoming her best self” (Rosalynde).
“In fact all of the women on my mother’s side were divorced, so I didn’t, I did not grow up seeing any kinda of, any of the major influential women in my life, none of them were in relationships, actively. So I definitely got it impressed upon me the idea that a woman can be single and in some instances should be single if a man who is not wanting to facilitate her becoming her best self, then she should be single.”
Here Rosalynde speaks about the impact of the strong women in her life.
“Being surrounded by these women that were, you know, these women were products of the ‘70s, of the E.R.A. and so they were like “I’ve been fighting with my husband and so he’s out and I’m doing this on my own. I’m raising these kids. I can do it.” You know all that stuff. Now I think that’s problematic because I did end up growing up around women who were not in relationship with another adult person and I think that that’s, there was a loss there. But at the same time the version of liberal progressive feminism was all around me because that was what it was at that time. You can be single. You can be a single mom. You can have a career. You can maintain a household. You can do all of that. You’re capable of it and you can do it well. And so I was completely surrounded by that in my family.”
A common theme expressed throughout this class and in our interview is the issue of the lack of representation of blacks in the arts. Rosalynde was a member of the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company, which is known for creating socially aware pieces with a diverse cast of dancers. She discussed how influential Bill T. Jones has been in her life and how this company grew to feel like her home.
“He was a tremendous influence on my artistry, my sense of community, my ability to love, who I am in the world, how I approach the world, how I think, what I’m interested in, what I respond to. A huge influence on my life.”
Although, this had not always been the case for her. Going to school in New York City at SUNY Purchase did offer a great sense of diversity, but with that diversity also came racism. Rosalynde attended Purchase from 1990-1994 and as a mixed race dance major at that time, Rosalynde fell within the minority group. She was forced to speak out for equal casting in performances and auditions in order to get any opportunities. She recalled a fellow classmate of hers who worked to raise awareness of black representation on stage with things such as ‘Blacks in the Back Days’. This was a day when all the students of color, Dominicans, Puerto Ricans, etc., would take class from the back of the studio as a way to stand out and show that they will not stand invisible to racism and typecasting.
“She really in-sighted a lot of tension, but what she was doing was trying to make the faculty recognize… this great demographic among [the] population in the department, but the people who are ending up getting cast and on stage and as leads are mostly white, and that’s a problem.”
By purposefully placing themselves in the back of studio during class, all of the black students were fighting the oppositional gaze. They were forcing the faculty and the university, as an institution in the hegemonic white patriarchy, to take notice of them. In The Oppositional Gaze, Bell Hooks writes that:
All attempts to repress our/black peoples’ right to gaze had produced in us an overwhelming longing to look, a rebellious desire, an oppositional gaze. By courageously looking, we defiantly declared: ‘Not only will I stare. I want my look to change reality.’ (116)
Rosalynde and the other black students were, in a sense, using their oppositional gaze and defiantly staring back at the inequality present in their classroom, forcing the faculty to make a change in their reality. They wanted to make sure they were getting equal opportunities to be shown on stage and cast in performances. A lack of black representation on stage also carries over to screen. According to the 2011 documentary Miss Representation, only 13% of roles on TV and film are played by black actors. It is necessary that all people of color, especially women who are in the lowest minority, get equal representation across stage and screen because the future generations need to see themselves represented as integral and equal members of our society.
“You can’t be what you can’t see.” -Miss Representation
Mixed Race Heritage
Rosalynde comes from a long line of mixed race Americans, which includes French, African, and Native American, dating all the way back to the late 18th century. She is a descendent of Mary Hemmings, who was the sister of one of Thomas Jefferson’s slaves, Sally Hemmings. Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemmings were lovers and had children together in an equal and loving partnership, which would have been considered unlawful at that time.
“So that kind of gives you an indication of my family. Its a very narrow substrata of basically mixed race, light skinned, African Americans and we’ve kinda of remained in that substrata for, you know, 200 years.”
She described this culture as being very nuanced throughout her lifetime. She gives credit to her grandparents, who were all college educated, for being “the reason that she has remained in the substrata of light skinned-African Americans as an effect of racism on African American culture” . She explained “if you were light skinned you were at least, you may still be black, but you weren’t as bad off as if you were dark skinned.” Being of mixed race seems to leave you in some awkward middle ground where you are not fully white and not fully black. This often leads to tension and racism coming from within the black community, also known as colorism. Colorism is defined as racism within a non-white race based on skin color with the lightest at the top of the hierarchy.
Rosalynde’s experiences as a woman of mixed race relate to Zora Howard’s thoughts on the subject as written in her poem “Bi-Racial Hair.” She writes
“cause my blood were in the sun, picking cotton too/a thousand times desecrated for my race/a thousand time desecrated from my history y’all never get/let textbooks be your truth/and sprinkle the ashes of your history into streams/I dream for a time and place where/maybe y’all all accept me” (Howard)
Here we can see that she is referencing the time of slavery when blacks were forced the pick cotton in for the white plantation owners. This was a time when segregation was mandatory and black people, especially women, were treated at work animals rather than humans. Rosalynde has traced her family history back to the time of Thomas Jefferson and his own slaves. Howard expresses how she can only dream of being accepted for her bi-racial heritage, instead of being ‘stuck in the middle’. While Rosalynde has never experienced direct racism due to her mixed race, she still feels connected to the issue and the pain that others in her community endure.
Listen to Rosalynde talk about colorism in her own family.
“You know in my family especially in the South and the Dixie Land area, no one wanted to marry anyone darker and so it became kind of an elitist group of people where you just associated with people who were of the same shade, so that you didn’t kind of corrupt the bloodline by you know having people return to, you know, darker black skin. So that mentality is kind of a subtext in my family. By the time, like by my parents were very socially active and very liberal and not at all of that feeling but definitely in grandparents and in my great-grandparents and the further back you go the more you kind of feel that racism in there. So those are the ways in which that history is still a part of me and a part of my family, and we are still affected by it.”
Rosalynde On Issues of Today
“What could be done better? Well so much could be done better. I think that as a nation right now we’re really distracted by partisanship and the triumph of one particular team over the other. Teams being Republican and Democrat. And I think that that is so distracting that we are allowing ourselves to erode the markers of basic humanity. And I would put in that the environment, like literally the air we breathe. We are willing to let that erode. Our ability to love. We are willing to let that erode by exclusion, by wanting to exclude. Our ability to take care of people who are sick. We are willing to let that erode. And the arts. Our ability to reflect, poeticize, and comment, and record, archive, where we are as a humanity in the arts. We’re willing to let all of those crumble in the effort to have one particular party kind of raise their fist in the air and we were triumphant. We won. And I think that that’s really a sign of actually as a civilization that we’re rolling backwards to a very, I don’t know, Neanderthal almost way of simplistic thinking. And that’s too bad. That we really need to do better.”
My Final Thoughts
If I were to have conducted this interview before taking this course, I feel that I would not have been able to ask such meaningful and well-thought out questions. This class has taught me to expand my width of thinking by giving me a better foundation in order to ask for and, in turn, receive, more well-rounded information. Before this class, I probably would have asked questions that would be considered ‘safe’ and rather superficial, that lacked any type of substance. After taking this class and learning much more vocabulary and overall knowledge in the subject of gender and race, I feel that I was able to stretch myself to ask more in-depth and meaningful questions.
Rosalynde’s answers for this interview definitely exceeded any of the expectations I had. I tried not to expect too much so I could allow myself to be more open to any of the answers I could have received, but after the interview I was happily surprised. I am very grateful to Rosalynde for trusting me with her personal information. When asked about her past and childhood experiences, she did not hold back any emotions or hardships that she endured. She also gave great insight into what her life was like growing up and did not hesitate whenever I needed clarifications or further explanations. I was not expecting her to give such open and thoughtful responses. Her answers made this project more meaningful to me because I felt responsible to give her story justice and portray her life story in a good light.
It was a bit difficult for me to try to think from her standpoint because I am not a woman of color myself. I never had to face being in a minority within a group setting. When formulating my questions, I found it difficult to think about what it would be like to know that my ancestors had been slaves and seen as the lowest members in our nation. Luckily, this class has given me some insight into what went on historically so I could use that as my inspiration. It was difficult to think from her standpoint because of our difference in our intersectionalities. Clearly our races are different, which made it difficult to put myself in her mindset in regards to things such as racism and the effects in has on women throughout the country. From our time together, I gather that our economic class was also different when we were growing up. She came from a divorced home with her single mother raising her throughout her childhood, while I come from a two-parent home with two incomes supporting me. We do share the same gender, in that we are both female. This parallel inspired me to ask about what is is like being a woman of mixed race and compare that to my experiences as a white woman. Overall, this class has opened my eyes to the struggles that have gone on in our society in the past and how they are still prevalent today. It has shown me that we need to work together in order to start making real and lasting changes for our future.