Sowmya’s Interview with Jo-Anne Hurlston

Introduction

Jo-Anne Hurlston (Ms. H), a Black woman, grew up in the early 60s in Boston, Massachusetts – specifically, in the section known as Roxbury. She explained that when her family originally moved in, the majority of those in her neighborhood were Jewish, and that as more black people moved in, Jewish families had begun to move out until the area had become predominantly black. This transition had happened quickly as well, within the span of about five to six years. Although we did not further expand on the details of this transition, from my knowledge, the eventual development of primarily black communities happened frequently. A combination of whether or not one could afford to move into the suburbs as well as pre-existing racial tensions between minority groups serves as some of the reasons as to why such a transition occurs, however Ms. H hadn’t confirmed whether this was the case in her neighborhood.

When describing the environment itself, Ms. H recounted some of her fondest memories with the neighborhood children and all the fun she had with them, essentially describing it as one big family. Aside from these children, her immediate family consists of her mother, father, and her younger brother.

Currently, she works at Presentation High School as the Co-Coordinator of the Student Internship Volunteer Program (a part of the newly created Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Team) and is the moderator for the Black Student Union.

Education, Race, and Family Influences

According to Ms. H, education has always been something paramount in her family. Her grandmother, someone who she looks up to and considers to be her role model, was not only civically engaged but was also extremely involved in terms of education beyond high school. She had high expectations for Ms. H, and for the women in her family in general, and this expectation always motivated her to do better – Ms. H had said she “never wants to disappoint her or her legacy”.

However, her grandmother wasn’t the only one who placed an extremely high value on education. Her mom was also extremely engaged in the Boston Public School System and was on the committee to help desegregate the Boston public schools. Ms. H actually revealed that only recently did she find out what her mom had gone through to do so.

My mom told us, told my brother recently, that at one point the whole family’s life was threatened. I had no idea that my life was on the line because of her involvement in the committee that was trying to desegregate Boston school. And we just – she protected us, and we existed, without knowing that we could have been snatched, murdered. Anything could have happened to us because there were people who were so opposed to integrating schools.

Jo-Anne Hurlston

The close calls that Ms. H and her family have had, and the sacrifices that her mother had made to further education in Black children emphasized the large number of barriers and dangers there are for Black people when it comes to something as simple and as fundamental as education. Her life being at risk because her mother wanted to make better the education for Black children further highlights the fact that this society is structured on inherently racist beliefs. Stating that such situations don’t happen anymore only further instigates the problem itself; turning a blind eye does not mean it did not happen and will never happen again.

We discussed about a lot of different aspects about education but mainly about the intersection between her education and race. We began by going over her journey in the school system, as well as life in college and beyond. Ms. H had attended a predominantly white high school and due to that lack of diversity, black students insisted on “sharing their existence”. She said that during Black History Week (at the time, it hadn’t been Black History Month yet) they had all worn Dashikis (a colorful garment for both men and women that for many people, represents a deep cultural connection with the African continent as well as a declaration of pride) and had demanded that their head mistress allow them to speak about who they were, what they were doing, why there were doing it, and overall, why they wanted and needed to celebrate Black people.

After high school, Ms. H attended Tufts University for undergraduate work, went to University of Virginia in Charlottesville for her master’s degree (she severely disliked the environment but loved the education in Charlottesville) and later attended Howard, an HBCU in Washington DC, for her doctorate. Ms. H recounted some of the reactions she got when she would tell people where she went to undergrad or grad school. People would say “Oh you must be really smart” or that “Well, you were just there because of affirmative action”.

In my younger years, when people would say stuff like that, I would just – bam – I went straight for the jugular. ‘No, like you’re just ignorant’ and whatever… I blow it off ‘cus it’s like am I smart? Well I’m not a dummy. Let’s put it this way – am I a Mensa? No, I’m not a genius, but I can take care of myself.

Jo-Anne Hurlston

The reactions she received after telling people her education experience is a clear example of a microaggression. Microaggressions, according to a study done by James Ellis about micro -aggressions and affirmations that first generation students face, are “intentional or unintentional brief exchanges that communicate hostile, derogatory, negative slights and insults on an individual or group”, and invalidate a person’s historical background, culture, identity etc. (Ellis et. al. 267). Telling her that she must’ve been able to attend prestigious colleges only because of affirmative action invalidates her identity and her skills. In addition, such statements insult Black people as a whole – it assumes that they are not talented, skilled, or smart enough to get into certain universities with their own merit when that is clearly not the case.

As she talked about her experiences and the risks she and her family have faced for the sake of education, I was reminded of a quote from Audre Lorde. In her paper Age, Race, Class, and Sex: Women Redefining Difference, Lorde writes “Black women and our children know the fabric of our lives is stitched with violence and with hatred, that there is no rest. We do not deal with it only on the picket lines, or in dark midnight alleys, or in the places where we dare to verbalize our resistance. For us, increasingly, violence weaves through the daily tissues of our living — in the supermarket, in the classroom, in the elevator, in the clinic and the schoolyard, from the plumber, the baker, the saleswoman, the bus driver, the bank teller, the waitress who does not serve us” (Lorde 4). Ms. H and her family have experienced violence and hatred, whether it was through subtle means like microaggressions or more direct methods like throwing rocks at windows. What is upsetting to note is that this is only one of the many places where she has experienced the aggression Lorde refers to. She has had her fair share of negative experiences in the educational environment, but her experiences do not limit themselves to the bounds of education. 

Being a Black Woman

To start this conversation about what it meant to be a black woman in America, I read the following quote from Bell Hooks’ Feminism is For Everybody out loud: “Anti-racist interactions between women are difficult in a society that remains racially segregated. Despite diverse work settings a vast majority of folks still socialize only with people of their own group. Racism and sexism combined create harmful barriers between women.” (Hooks, 59)

I asked her “Do you feel as though there are expectations of you as a black woman in America that have shaped your experience?” and “What does it mean to you to be a black woman in America?”

I’ve definitely evolved last 40 years of being an adult. I used to be a lot more brash in approach. I had to learn over the years, how to think before you speak or react

Now I’ve learned to dial it back… and assess it before I react to it. So, definitely growth there. It could have, it could be dangerous…

Jo-Anne Hurlston

Being a Black woman in America has almost forced her to, in a sense, bite her own tongue in specific situations. She talks about times when she used to be far more brash with her retorts – if someone said something she didn’t agree with or didn’t like, she would call it out like it is.  

Having to learn how to tone down her own feelings and considering it as “evolving” over time and as growth seems to epitomize what it means to be a Black woman in America. Being a Black woman means that everything said is scrutinized at extreme levels and simple emotions are exaggerated to unrealistic extents. Serena Williams, for example, has had victories stolen from her and has had the media demonize her all because she was expressing herself. The same does not happen to her male or white counterparts, but because Serena Williams is a Black woman, she faces extreme objections.

Echoing this sentiment, Claudia Rankine writes in Citizen,“Perhaps this is how racism feels no matter the context – randomly the rules that everyone else gets to play by no longer apply to you…” (Rankine 30). The rules have been manipulated in such a way that by virtue of being Black in America, one is forced to swallow their own words and essentially tone down their true feelings. In this current day and age, the lack of consistency in these rules are significantly warped and the size of these differences have essentially become larger than life, where the alterations in these rules do not just limit themselves to comparatively smaller acts of aggression.

And right now, in this country, it’s a struggle. In this current environment, it’s very much a struggle. I have a saying on my wall that says, ‘Well, I hope I don’t get killed today for being black’ – and that’s what I live with everyday… That’s the reality you deal with when you have folks who truly have been unleashed by the current president, who feel completely entitled to say whatever they want to say and do whatever they want to do, and expect us to stand there and take it…

Jo-Anne Hurlston

The very rules that force black people to bite their tongues have been manipulated to allow others to publicize their racist thoughts, ideals, and actions. Because these rules are not the same throughout, there is no punishment given to those who are blatantly and unapologetically racist. There is no form of reprimand given even if the lives of black people are at risk – all because the rules don’t apply to them in the way they apply to everyone else.

Connecting this back to bell hooks’ quote, one of the reasons as to why society remains racially segregated could be attributed to the manipulation of these rules. When what applies to Black people does not apply to their white counterparts, and what applies to Black women does not apply to white women, arises an increased separation between minorities and the white majority.

Black Women in the Media

I began this conversation by asking “What do you think about the portrayal of black men versus black women in mainstream media narratives?”

In her chapter titled “Booty Call”, Patricia Hill Collins writes about the portrayal of black people in media, stating “[m]ass media’s tendency to blur the lines between fact and fiction has important consequences for perceptions of Black culture and Black people. Images matter, and just as those of Black femininity changed in tandem with societal changes, those of Black masculinity are undergoing a similar process. As is the case for controlling images of Black femininity, representations of Black masculinity reflect a similar pattern of highlighting certain ideas…” (Collins 151). Collins’ essentially states that Black people are misrepresented in the media, where not only the lines between fact and fiction are blurred, but these images change alongside society.

However, Ms. H answered this question in a way that I had not originally predicted – I had assumed that she would speak towards the hyper-sexualization of black women in the media or about the misrepresentation of black masculinity, and that her response would essentially echo what Collins writes about. Instead, Ms. H didn’t necessarily disregard these points, rather, she spoke – to a certain extent – about free will and choice.

As far as women are portrayed – it’s up to them… to allow themselves to be portrayed in this particular image, boo boo that’s you. I might not agree with it but that’s your choice. That’s your decision. As for a man – it’s… it’s you know, it’s like how you decide to present yourself. I might not agree with it, but if that’s how you think you can make your money and it’s not hurting anybody… Again, the media only gives people what they want and what will sell. So, it’s going to sell, then that’s what they’re going to project. Because it’s all about the dollar.

‘This is detrimental’ you can say that. You know, it depends on how many people are willing to risk a paycheck to stand up for what they believe in and what they know is the right thing to do.

Jo-Anne Hurlston

What Ms. H said, that there is always a choice and that people have the power to determine how they want to be portrayed, represents another aspect to how Black people are portrayed in the media. Ms. H and Collins approach this topic of portrayal in the media from different perspectives.

The initial demand for a specific portrayal of Black men and women in the media stems from systematic racism and these portrayals change as society changes. But at the same time, there is always the choice to be made – you can decide whether or not you want to take up a certain role and be portrayed in that light. As Ms. H said, it’s all about the dollar and it comes down to a matter of whether or not one can resist the temptations of money.

Understanding these two perspectives then leads to the question “How do we proceed from here”. From my understanding of what Collins has written as well as Ms. H’s response, perhaps the best way to direct the media away from harmful Black stereotypes is to not only getting rid of misrepresentations at a face-level, but to also have people stand up for what they believe to be right even if it means going against a pay check. This is a difficult task and there’s no denying that. This society is not only built on an inherently racist foundation, but it also values capital over everything – any fight against current media portrayals is bound to be met with some level opposition. In addition, media roles tend to be directed away from Black people – they are not given the same opportunities as their white counterparts, and the roles they are given root themselves in harmful stereotypes. However, even with this in mind Ms. H says that choice still exists, and that you can determine how you want to be seen because no one else is going to force you into a certain role. Ultimately, perhaps it is a combination of making the right choice as well as acknowledging and making a stand against such misrepresentations that will help steer the media away from these harmful stereotypes. 

Conclusion

Ms. H is truly the definition of awe-inspiring – she’s an incredibly powerful, knowledgeable, kind-hearted Black woman, and I honestly do not believe my interview would have gone as well as it did, had it been with anyone else. She’s someone that I frequently look up to as well – she’s dealt with a plethora of hatred and violence, but has not let that distract her from what she loves to do. Educating. As a woman of color myself, taking a page out of her book will allow me to further myself and use my experiences, both good and bad, to grow and evolve. 

Her genuine love and appreciation for education shines through in everything that she does both inside and out of the classroom setting. As the co-coordinator of the Student Internship Volunteer Program and a member of the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Team, Ms. H has proposed and is pushing for the development of Ethnic Studies that students take for credit, consisting of courses that would allow for learning about different ethnic racial groups and achieve cultural competence. The work she does with students of color and the joy and respect she has for the education of cultural history really emphasizes how dedicated Ms. H is, and I am absolutely grateful to have had this opportunity to learn about her experiences and perspectives regarding her intersectionality. Presentation High School is incredibly lucky to have her.

Citation

Collins, Patricia Hill. Black Sexual Politics: African Americans, Gender, and the New Racism. 1st ed., Routledge, 2004.

Ellis, James M., et al. “Examining First-Generation College Student Lived Experiences with Microaggressions and Microaffirmations at a Predominately White Public Research University.” Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychology, vol. 25, no. 2, 2019, pp. 266–79. Crossref, doi:10.1037/cdp0000198.

Hooks, Bell. Feminism Is for Everybody: Passionate Politics. 2nd ed., Routledge, 2014.

Lorde, Audre. “Age, Race, Class and Sex: Women Redefining Difference.” Sister Outsider, Crossing Press, 1984

Rankine, Claudia. Citizen: An American Lyric. 1st ed., Graywolf Press, 2014.