by Dr. Elana Jefferson-Tatum
Dr. Elana Jefferson-Tatum, Ph.D. is hypnobirthing coach, full-spectrum doula, and practitioner-scholar of Africana religions. After several years in the academy teaching at Hobart and William Smith Colleges and then Tufts University, she shifted her life entirely. She came to the Professor Is Out to find a sense of community as she continues to navigate her life beyond academia. Now, in addition to being an admin for the group, she’s a proud homeschooling parent of two amazing kids (with a third on the way) and the owner of Lunar Flow Doula. Dr. Jefferson-Tatum is also part of The Professor Is Out FB group admin team!
[Originally posted in Professor Is Out Facebook group on Thursday, February 3, 2022]
Trigger Warning: mention of suicide
One of the reasons I had the courage to leave academia was a dear friend of mine who is unfortunately no longer with us. The anniversary of her birth was yesterday. She would have been 36 years old. I honored her life and legacy with two other Black women also navigating their own relationships to the academy. We lite candles in her honor and shared her words of deep reflection on that state of the academy and it’s assault specifically on Black bodies and minds (even by those who are seemingly skin-folk). She was a fiercely courageous and incredibly brilliant Black woman who choose to leave this world in 2015 because it no longer provided space for all of who she was: Black, woman, and brilliant. In her own words:
“Patriarchy is not the only ‘invisible caste system’; so is racism. We find them at every level of the university hierarchy: students, staff, faculty, professionals, and administrators. They are woven throughout the fabric of [the] University. And when the two intersect as they do in the lives of black women—in my life—it is a soul-killing experience. I will not be complicit in my own destruction.
To complete the program would be a pyrrhic victory. So, I’m making the decision to quit….
They say they’re inviting us to the party but refuse to be affected by our presence or change things in order to accommodate those from a different walk of life. They refuse to be influenced by our blackness but instead want to superimpose their whiteness on us such that we have to bend, twist and contort ourselves to fit our ‘big’ thighs and ‘wide’ hips into their straight legged skinny jeans. ‘The problem is not the jeans,’ they say. ‘The problem is you. Your body’….
I have to let go and move on. They’ve nothing more to offer me. But I have much more to offer to myself. It would be a great disservice to my soul to let these people drain the life out of it instead of taking the fruit of my thoughts, actions, and reflections and feeding my own soul with it. It’s like enslaved women forced to nurse white babies before their own and not having enough left after the white child nursed to nourish her own flesh and blood. I shan’t do such a thing. It would be a disgrace to my ancestors who fought so valiantly for their freedom. No. I shall leave… and trod the lonely road of my ancestors in search of freedom, truth, and love.”
She chose to leave this world only a little more than a year after writing these words. I share this today because she taught me above all to fiercely guard my own inner peace and freedom. She taught me to leap towards the life I wanted. She, of course, choose a life on the other-side. But, in Africana sacred traditions, death is not an end; it’s merely another realm of existence. She, thus, like many of her Africana ancestors before her, who longed for freedom, jumped from the boat or walked into the sea to return to Guinea, to Africa. She saw in this life not living but death. I, of course, wish she’d chosen to make a life here but I, too, understand the pain of trying to navigate the world and the academy as a Black woman. And, her choice doesn’t take away from the fact that she still in the end choose her own freedom.
When I choose to leave the academy, I didn’t know anyone who had done it. I didn’t have this community, and I had few I could really talk to about my decision. It was also challenging because I wasn’t choosing to leave to pursue another career, I was choosing to leave to pursue my own joy. (I’m a homeschooling mom and a part-time birth worker now.) But, her memory, her spirit, gave me courage. She let me know that I could leave and that, yes, there was life on the other side of academia.
P.S. If anyone is struggling with suicidal thoughts, please seek help and support. We should not navigate such challenging feelings alone. We can craft freedom and inner peace in this world as well.