Autobiographical Assignment Fall 2016

Me at 18 in 1970
For a very long time, I have included the standard assignment of a memoir, 1-2 pages from all of my students each semester.  It has to include a picture of the author, which has gotten easier over the years. In the old days before cell phone photos, I would permit them to do portraits of themselves, to use photos of their children or themselves as children, video self-portraits, and photocopies of their student ID.  Actually I still permit all these other ways of supplying an image. Because I find that it isn’t the likeness of the student that imprints their identity on my brain.  It’s the process. Indeed, I am often amused by how little the photos of the students look like them.

The initial reason for the assignment was to engrave upon my consciousness who the person was for at least the duration of the semester but over the years it has become so much more. Since I don’t grade the assignment or return it, I organize them alphabetically and use them to take attendance in the beginning.  I have found that many students are inclined to share vital information with me at a very early stage in our relationship.  Of course some students blow it off but the deep ones almost never do. It can be a way to discover their talents for music, art, dance or the sciences that might never emerge, given that the class is in English.  I then relish the opportunity to choose to incorporate these skills into the teaching to make it more interesting to this particular student. Something that is interesting to one student may be of interest to another. Also, a happy student spreads the word and sends you other happy students.  So then I get special students who are sent to me by special students I have had in the past.

The fact that I now do everything on blackboard has made it much easier for me to respond individually to the autobiographies.  Finally, if I have a student who is either a gifted writer or has a particular problem with writing in English, I find out immediately.  Teaching at a place like City College, with many poor and immigrant students, I am always astonished by how eager they are to share their journey with me. They are invariably proud and open regarding the obstacles they have overcome. They are thoughtful about the process of their education, their childhood dreams versus the reality of their young adulthood. At this stage in their lives, themselves is probably their strongest subject, so why not give them a chance to shine. .

A year or two ago I got drawn back into teaching memoir.  At that point, I added a brief memoir of my own, focused on my educational experience since I, too, had attended City College as an undergraduate, to provide students with an example of what one might do, although I emphasize that any kind of statement about themselves which extends to at least a half a page will be acceptable. I give them 15 points for this assignment, no exceptions.  Just looking over this piece of writing in preparation for the fall, I am aware that although I tell them not to model my essay, I can see that it has had an impact.  So, I decided to tweak this brief essay and include it here in honor of the last semester I expect to be teaching at City College. 

My grandmother Willi Posey, my Aunt Barbara, my grandfather Andrew Jones and my mother-to-be-Faith in 1950 at Aunt Barbara's wedding. I used this picture on the cover of my third book Dark Designs and Visual Culture (Duke UP 2005)

August 15, 2016
Autobiography of Michele Wallace
    My undergraduate college education took place from September 1969 through June 1974.  I was 17 years old when it started and I began with one semester at Howard University in Washington D.C.  I suffered much from being young and inexperienced in living away from home without the supervision and support of my mother.  Indeed, the summer before, my Mom had gifted me a trip to Mexico to study flamenco dancing and Spanish for the summer at the University in Mexico City for my high school graduation present and while I was there, I fell in love and decided that I did not wish to return to the United States. 
      Luckily for me I was only 17 so the decision to remain in Mexico was taken out of my hands when my mother rescinded the permission she had granted me to travel. It really turned into quite a mess, which resulted in my spending the balance of the summer in a juvenile home for wayward girls. I wrote about this adventure in my first book, Black Macho and The Myth of the Superwoman, which was published in 1979 when I was then 27 but the truth is I don’t believe I have ever fully understood what I was thinking that summer or even what got into me. The guy I fell in love with, Conrado, who was Guatamalan, I never saw again.  The love I felt for him turned out to be something like a passing fever or infection. It went as quickly as it had come.
   Despite my apparent misbehavior, mother gamely packed me up for my first semester as a student at Howard University.  She told me if I decided to return to Mexico, she would not even known when I had gone, that a new independence and sense of responsibility was expected of me.  I only had one semester at Howard. She felt as though I wasn’t working hard enough so she brought me back home to New York. She said that I needed to get a job so that I could pay her rent and that the decision to go to college was entirely on me.  Whereupon I went down to New York University and achieved immediate admission on the spot, except that they also wanted the tuition within days.  Of course I had no money, nor were my parents willing to pay. 
          In those days I believe anybody could buy their way into New York University. It was much smaller and the neighborhood around it was not the pricey SoHo, but bedraggled streets filled with abandoned factories and storefronts.  When I realized that tuition and NYU were not an option, I found myself at the City College of New York, a campus 10 blocks from where I had grown up and where I continued to live in Harlem. Also it was where my mother had gone to college beginning in 1948, majoring in art education (because then they didn’t accept women into the school of liberal arts) completing her B.S. in 1955, and her Masters in Art Education in 1959.  Her name is Faith Ringgold and she is now a famous artist.
    It took her 7 years to finish her Bachelors because in 1950 she eloped with my father Earl Wallace and in 1952 she had two children--myself in January and my sister Barbara in December.  By the time of her B.S. graduation, she had separated from my Dad and we had moved back in with my grandmother, whom I knew as Momma Jones.  In those days pregnant women were banned from all sorts of activities including school.  By the time she completed her Masters in 1959, attending classes at night and teaching during the day, the annulment of her marriage had been completed. 
      Although City College was not my first or second or third choice of a college to attend, in those days it was entirely free, and although it didn’t yet have open enrollment at the point at which I graduated from high school, my senior advisor had quietly applied for admission on my behalf without telling me. So when I went to City College, I found out I had already been admitted under the old standards.  Those years at City College were heady times, in more ways than one. The campus was organized entirely different including both Finley student center and the library having their own separate buildings on the South campus below 135th Street and Convent Avenue. The library stood where the Architecture School now stands and the Finley Center, which has since been torn down, was just beyond that.
   In place of NAC was the Lewisohn Stadium, a huge open air stadium ideal for large sports events as well as graduations, which is where I saw my mother receive both her Bachelor’s in 1955 and her Master’s in 1959.
   During my college years I didn’t do any of the things my mother did. I didn’t get married and I didn’t have any children.  I became a feminist and a writer and majored in creative writing and English after a short time taking art history and thinking about majoring in it.  I was discouraged from pursuing art history, although I loved it, because I felt an obligation to focus on the study of artists of color and such a focus seemed impossible then.
   Both my mother and my aunt were college graduates, and their grandfather was an elementary school principal in Palatka Florida when he died at an early age of appendicitis (in 1912), terminating college attendance among the family for a generation.  But my grandmother Momma Jones, also known as Mme. Willi Posey (she was a seamstress and fashion designer once she had raised her children), together with her oldest brother, Cardoza Posey, who had attended college, were very concerned that her three children would go to college. Momma Jones succeeded with two out of three. Unfortunately her oldest son, Andrew Jones, died prematurely at 39 and never got to go to college.  Aunt Barbara, my mother’s older sister, went to college at NYU in home economics at 16 in 1943 and graduated in 1948, the same year in which my mother Faith graduated from Morris High School.  Both sisters married in 1950.  Neither marriage would be successful.  Aunt Barbara never had any children and died in 1982, at the age of 55, the year after Momma Jones died.  I was 30 at the time and very sad indeed.


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