By Bethany Leggett
Professor Julia Jordan-Zachery will be joining the faculty as chair of the Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Department in July.
“I am thrilled that Julia Jordan-Zachery is joining Wake Forest University’s Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Department. Julia is a noted scholar of Black feminism, an exceptional teacher-scholar, a practitioner of the engaged liberal arts through her important community justice work, and if all those amazing and welcome attributes were not enough, she will be serving as the next WGSS department chair. Students and faculty alike will all benefit from Julia’s powerful mind, deep dedication to substantive student learning, and impressive leadership skills. The WGSS Department could not have found a more exceptional and well-suited scholar for this critical role,” Dean of the College Michele Gillespie said.
Jordan-Zachery is a leading voice on Black feminism and public policy, having published six books within the field including Shadow Bodies: Black Women, Ideology, and Representation (Rutgers University Press, 2017) and co-edited Black Girl Magic Beyond the Hashtag: Twenty-First-Century Acts of Self-Definition (Arizona University Press, 2019) and Black Political Women: Demanding Citizenship, Challenging Power, and Seeking Justice (SUNY University Press, 2018). Her first publication, Black Women, Cultural Images and Social Policy (Routledge, 2010) won the W. E. B. Dubois Best Book Award from the National Conference of Black Political Scientists and the Anna Julia Cooper Outstanding Book Publication Award by the Association for the Study of Black Women in Politics. She has written articles and co-edited journals on such topics as the welfare rights of mothers, race politics in U.S. cities, and Black women within the academy. She spent a decade as Director of the Black Studies Program at Providence College in Rhode Island, where she also served as interim Director of the Women’s Studies Program for a year. She has also served in various faculty positions at Brown University, Howard University, Wheaton College, and the University of Vermont. Her prolific research has led to presentations and guest lectures at universities and colleges across the country.
“I’ve gotten to the point in my career where I don’t even use the term research anymore. I say I tell stories related to Black women,” Jordan-Zachery said.
Her focus now is about bridging the gap between the study of Black women in the academy and the work happening within community organizations that need support. Jordan-Zachery formed The Black Women and Girls Collaborative, a multidisciplinary research group that centers the experiences of Black women and girls, for such a purpose and coordinated symposiums in 2016 and 2017.
Although she wasn’t looking to leave her position as chair of the Department of Africana Studies at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, Jordan-Zachery saw that the open position within the Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Department included a specific line about Black feminism, and she had to know more about what Wake Forest was doing. “You don’t see those very often where schools are intentionally focused on Black feminism. But then I wondered, is this just a response to the time? And if it were just a response to the time, how committed is Wake Forest to doing this work? And so I asked. And I got amazing responses that led me to believe that Wake Forest is truly committed to doing work around the kind of central tenants of Black feminism, justice-oriented work,” Jordan-Zachery said.
One of the people she engaged in conversation about the position was Wake Forest Professor of the Humanities Corey D. B. Walker. Walker, who served on the search committee for the position and is inaugural director of the Program in African American Studies at Wake Forest, knew that Jordan-Zachery would be an ideal candidate for the position. “I am excited to be reunited with a dear friend and committed intellectual. Black feminist studies is foundational to African American studies and to a liberal arts education. With Julia, we will continue to challenge ourselves as teachers and scholars to realize a broader and deeper understanding of Pro Humanitate.”
While her research on institutional economic and political policies affecting Black women continues to be a critical focus for Jordan-Zachery, she is equally passionate about engaging with the individual, whether its asking probing questions of her students or sitting down with junior faculty to check in on how they are doing. She always starts her courses with her students the same way, asking them “How do you know what you know?” followed by a call to action, “What do you want to do with what you don’t know?” She approaches mentorship within academia similarly. “My approach to mentoring is to help that individual craft their voice, their understanding of themselves, in relation to not only the department, but the institution and the profession at large … what is it that you want? And what is it that the department wants? How could I be of service to you?” she said. It’s not uncommon for a planned half-hour chat with a junior faculty member to turn into a two-hour listening session as they discuss, with specificity, the direction they want to take and any hurdles in the way. She has co-authored articles with junior faculty to help open the door to publication, having witnessed firsthand how difficult it is for Black feminists topics to receive contracts. “One of the reasons I take on some of the work that I do, is to try to expand access,” she said.
For Jordan-Zachery, the work to come at Wake Forest is invigorating, and she is keeping a journal with ideas she wants to implement when she arrives in July. Some are long-term hopes like organizing another Black Women and Girls Symposium addressing such topics as reentry programs for incarcerated Black mothers. More immediately, she wants to incorporate the work of Audre Lorde in designing department gatherings and meetings through a lens of pleasure, especially after a year of trauma from the pandemic. “It goes against the ethos of what we’re seeing in the academy where we’re expected to be machines to produce, produce, produce, and sometimes not have space for pleasure. And so I want the work that we do to come from a place of pleasure and not from a place of pressure,” she said. “ I think that that’s super important because a) we’re in a pandemic and b) because we are constantly bombarded by death, related to the pandemic but also related to the violences that are extracted on, for example, black transgender women’s bodies. And all of that can be overwhelming and daunting, and we can forget that there is space for joy and there’s space for pleasure in all that we do.”
In all things, she seeks authentic interactions and ways to deepen the connection between the classroom and the community, bringing a pro humanitate approach from her first day. “Once people get to know me and they know that I indeed practice [intentionality] then beautiful things happen,” she said.
A Conversation about Black Feminism, the Power of Voice, and a Network of Collaboration with Julia Jordan-Zachery
Answers have been edited for length and clarity.
You’ve spoken about Audre Lorde’s idea of the erotic and how centering work on joy is foundational. What’s an invigorating, joy-centered day for you?
When I walk out of the classroom and it doesn’t feel like my feet are touching the ground because the students were so engaged and thoughtful and provocative and present. The best teaching day for me is when I recede as a teacher and the students are really centered and take over. I literally will sit behind them and just watch them do their thing. That is like pure joy for me, and I literally will walk out of the classroom, like, I’m like floating on clouds.
It’s that energy, right, and nothing comes close to when those students just bring that into the classroom; they’re so full that it’s just like overflowing. How do you not glow from that? And what makes it beautiful is that you realize it’s not about you. It’s really about them. It’s about them coming into their power. It’s got nothing to do with me. I mean, that makes my day every time.
When you’re talking about your approach to teaching, you said you’re not necessarily interested in theory, you’re interested in experience. What is the classroom experience like for you and how do you set a tone for students for self-exploration?
I sometimes tease my students and I say to them, ‘At this stage we’re all good readers, but are we good do-ers of what we read? How do you take that knowledge from a book and translate it into action?’ That’s what I’m passionate about. That’s what I’m hoping to bring into Wake … to move into that space of doing, move into that space of action, where we are living or embodying, for a lack of a better term, what it is we are grappling with.
For example, when I teach my Women of Color Feminism class, they have an embodiment exercise, where they have to take what we’re reading, watching or listening to — because what I do is I partner readings with something to watch and also something to listen to. They have to figure out where do they fit with this knowledge. One of the tools that we use is actually creating a scrapbook as part of the class. Bring your crayons. Bring your glue. Bring a notebook. There’s something I find of having students go back to be really really tactile, especially because we’re living in a world where everything is digital. And then use these materials they have available to them to put them, the “I,” in what we’re studying. So what is it that you are experiencing when you read, listen, or watch? What does this remind you of? How does it make you feel? What emotions come up. What does it inspire? It’s a really good way of encouraging self reflection without saying, ‘Oh, let’s reflect.’
When I came across just how you open classes with “How do you know what you know?” That’s a very profound short question. It must be a fascinating starting point and I’m sure every discussion takes a different direction.
Yes, it’s a question that we don’t often ponder, and a lot of students will actually go through class without necessarily pondering where they fit in this knowledge and knowledge production. So having that embodiment exercise also gets them to think about what they know and how they know what they know.
Every class I conclude with students writing out how they are going to use this knowledge. Now you have this set of skills, what are you going to do with it? And more importantly, how are you going to give it away, which kind of sort of goes against this neo-liberal individualistic way of why we’re in college right — that is all about me gathering information so my life is better blah blah blah — and here you have me coming along saying that yes, your life is probably going to be okay for the most part, but knowledge was never about that. Knowledge is really about asking if you are able to give it away, and the best way to know that you know something is to give it away.
You speak a lot about the power of the voice. How can institutions support the individual’s exploration of voice?
That’s why we have the Black Women and Girls Collaborative, for example, where we’re trying to offer people a different model of being in the academy of producing knowledge. And so one of the things that is paramount for us with the Collaborative, but also paramount for me when I teach, is the idea that we all came here with what we need in order to live a full life. So we don’t use broken paradigms, we don’t use deficit paradigms, etc. I ask my students to not use a certain kind of language in my classrooms, and one of the things that I asked them not to use is this notion of imposter syndrome. Especially with first-gen students because, to me, what that language does is that it places responsibility back on the individual. No, there’s nothing wrong with you. You came with everything you needed in order to succeed. What happened is that you didn’t have access to certain things. So if there is a deficit, the deficit is in the institutions, not the individuals. I hate that language of imposter syndrome. You’re not an imposter as soon as you say you’re an imposter, you are taking on the position that somehow you don’t belong. According to who? No, there are structures set up that don’t always allow you access. That’s different. That encourages a different type of relationship. So I always ask students to define that. Who is that language for? Did the people on the margins come up with that language or was that language given to us? And if that language was given to us, by who and for what purpose?
You have the right to choose the language to decide your experience … their voice is their power. And everybody has a voice and holds power. We do not have equal power in the use of our voice, but to speak or not to speak is power. I try to tell them that in my classes, they have that right, within reason — it has to be respectful and we don’t cause harm to other people — to learn how to sharpen their voice. And I tell them that silence is an option, but it should never be forced. How are you using your voice? If you leave my classroom with a question that hasn’t been asked, you have not allowed either one of us to be great. And that’s not my problem. That’s yours because that’s your power. Give both of us an opportunity to be great.
I wonder how has this intersectionality of race, politics, gender and sexuality as a research field has changed from when you first started in academia?
I’m going to tell you the truth. Publishing on Black women, which is my research area, is hard. Twenty-five years later, it’s still hard. I remember the first book I published, editors said to me, ‘Oh, this isn’t really going to sell’ or ‘Is there enough to really write an entire book on Black women.’ And I still get similar types of responses … I think we’re beginning to see a little bit of change now. But historically, nope, which is in part why I do some of the work that I do, to help give individuals doing the kind of research, particularly around Black women and a particular kind of research around Black women, opportunities to write and to get published … So like recently for Black Women and Girls Symposium, I ran a writing workshop over three months. So we would meet twice a month and write and get feedback and workshop projects.
We’ve talked about you as a teacher and as a researcher, but I also know you’re coming in as chair. At Wake, we’ve had a lot of conversations about supporting junior faculty, especially during COVID-19, and women, in particular, who have balanced so much this year. From your perspective as a leader within a department, what would you like to see happen and what kind of conversations would you like to have with your fellow faculty members within the WGSS department?
One of the things that I will do is ask faculty to create — with flexibility because I am very much aware that this pandemic isn’t over — to create a one-year plan and a five-year plan. And that, those will be the moments that we would check in around because my approach to leadership isn’t simply to check in with people around evaluation. I don’t think it’s fair to only check in when you’re evaluating someone’s performance, but to have ongoing conversations, as much as a faculty member wants. So one of the things that I’ve done at UNC Charlotte is to set up 30-minute meetings, sometimes they run for two hours, where each faculty has an opportunity to just talk to me and I just listen. I don’t care what it is that you want to talk about. Whatever is on your mind, I am here to listen. And I let them know very explicitly that this does not go into your file. This is not evaluative. Nobody knows what’s said but you and I.
So when you’re talking about mentoring and support, you are really talking about building relationships with faculty members, and you have to be willing to do that at an individual level but also as at a collective level. And that takes really intentional use of that time where you are allowing that faculty member the opportunity to to kind of get to know you. And that can only happen by being present and listening.