Good morning. I will exploit my own life story to tell you a story of how I came to say: I have found my vocations by “Choosing to Walk in the Footsteps of Heroes.”
I was born in 1953 of teen parents. Mama was sixteen and daddy was a year older and had to go to work in the factory. In fact, they were married in “shotgun” style for reasons that seemed like a family secret for as long as I can remember. Shotguns and family secrets were abundant in my family and were part of their “biography” as a group of “want to be anything but Negro” blacks. They were conscious that they were not like other blacks. “Not being like other blacks” is a mantra because it suggests we do something different to be different and that is a family calling of some kind.
The root of the word vocation in Latin is the word for voice. And, in finding my own vocation or vocations, I had to be aware first of the voices in the family in which I was born.
So I piece together an idea here that vocation begins with voices from our families. In my case, it was a strange mixture of violence and love. At times in my life, I thought of those voices as baggage and at other times, those were the very voices that informed my judgments and choices. But at no time did I choose to let those voices alone determine who I was and how I acted.
This same message I teach in my diversity trainings: we all have cultural baggage. Some of that “stuff” is the kind of cultural capital so necessary for being able to write a complete sentence and knowing who you can trust outside of your community. But my family mantras were not just songs repeated with little value but were sometimes poetic tools for guidance and strength in a confusing and overpowering world.
The world and “Amerika” whose legacies of racism, sexism, classism, and ethnic violence had it own voices. My first heroes were my grandparents and parents who helped me make sense of the “official narrative” of the United States of America. From the basal readers, “Dick and Jane,” to the compromise of 1820 that made slaves 3/5th of a person for voting purposes, to why my family loved the Pittsburg
Pirates because the Detroit Tigers didn’t have any black players. My family also got involved in the personal lives of the characters from the “Edge of Night” or the “Search for Tomorrow” — by the way, these were Soaps in the 50s and 60s.
I can hear my grandparents saying: “Baby, she should leave him. She really loves someone else. He just doesn’t understand her. Poor child…”
The same grandparents who taught me about life under Jim Crow and why Emmett Till was killed and the need to stand up to discrimination, the way Adam Clayton Powell from New York, Barbara Jordan from Texas, and Congressman John Conyers from Michigan — voices in the system to fight for us — did. They also taught me about life choices from the Soaps, from a context where everyone was employed, white, and there was no such thing as domestic violence.
By the time I was coming of age, against the backdrop of the 1967 Detroit riot, the 1968 assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, and the 1969 attack on the Black Panther Party in Oakland, California and in Detroit, I had a different context. My context was critical, and I made the choice to listen to other voices.
Those voices were the political voices of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad of the Nation of Islam, Malcom X, Maulana Ron Karenga of the Pan African Congress, and the Black Panther voices of Eldridge Clever, Bobby Seale, and Huey P. Newton.
Political voices of James Lee Boggs from the Black Workers Party, General Lee Baker from the League of Revolutionary Black Workers, and Reverend Cleage from the Republic of New Africa.
Political voices of Stokely Carmichael, Eric Williams, Robert Allen, H. Rap Brown, and Robert Williams, who fled to China.
Political voices of Modebo Keita and Ernie M. Kalimoto from the People’s Action Committee and revolutionary women's voices of Angela Davis, Elaine May, Kathleen Cleaver, and Assata, all associated with the Black Liberation Army.
Some of the voices I listened to came from other countries: Kwame Nkrumah from Ghana, Amilcar Cabral from Guinea Bissau, Jomo Kenyatta from Kenya, Senghor’s "Negritude" and Diop’s "African roots of western civilization," both from Senegal, Walter Rodney from Guyana, Fidel Castro and Che Guvara from the Cuban revolution, Mao Tse Tung from China, V.I. Lenin from Russia, Franz Fanon from Martinique, Julius K. Nyerere’s African Socialism from Tanzania, and all I could read about Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress (ANC).
I chose to read a different set of bibles: How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, Capitalism and Slavery, Black Nationalism in White America, Mao’s Red Book and Nkrumah’s Black Book, State and Revolution…and so many more. These were the books of my theoretical world and of my political heroes. I read them in a world that I was helping to create, with my local political activist heroes in Detroit. These were certainly not the books I was reading to get a "so-called" education in college.
These Detroit voices taught me to politically define an enemy of the people, how to determine a local problem, how to make a flyer, how to recruit a cadre, how to organize study circles, how to get someone out of jail, how to shoot a gun, and how to turn a political line into political action.
In essence, they taught me that my judgments and ability to make a principled decision were the most important ingredients in my character, regardless of the organization, the particular leaders, or the turmoil and dynamics of the moment.
I sang Curtis Mayfield songs every day when they banned them on the radio: “We're a winner and don’t ever let anybody say…we can’t make it cause a feeble’s mind is in our way….no more tears do we cry…cause we have finally dried our eyes…and we are moving on up…moving on up…Lord, have mercy…we are moving on up.”
Or…*War*…Edwin Starr…"what is it good for…absolutely…nothing.”
Or, the Last Poets…. "I love niggers…niggers are me…but there is one thing…I do not love about niggers…Niggers are scared of Revolution!"
And, I danced my butt off…to James Brown’s “Say it loud…I’m black and I’m proud…say it loud…I’m black and I’m proud.”
I choose a political vocation in two senses of the word vocation: One was to embrace the voices that I heard and the other one was to project a political voice in a professional career as I was a teacher in a local community college. I married but I did not become a housewife, I became a person who engages other people’s political ideas, and beliefs in a political manner and I got paid for it. I think they call that teaching and research and being a public intellectual.
My Black Nationalist revolutionary days scared my parents, as it did the black men I loved. As I got older and more political, I began to look at my personal experiences through political lenses. Now there were voices in those revolutionary movements calling out to me about what kind of woman I should become.
By the late 70s, some of those voices came from my family: My grandmother said “Straighten your hair,” “Be a lady” and “Stay Yvonne.” My mother, who had an Afro now and listened to Miriam Makeba’s South African Click Song, said “Be Kesho, go to Africa but get married.” And new voices came from outside my “politics” and from other communities of resistance.
And my “black sisters in the revolution" had ideas far from revolutionarily justice and equality when it came to their relationships with men. They wore African clothes and made babies and often were abused. I bailed out. My voice told me to get the hell out and find my own space — out of this Tight Space of being black and female.
My next vocation was shaped by my two new challenges: a need to define and advance my feminist voice and a need to be a professor so that my new platform could be writing.
My bibles changed: The Second Sex, The Feminine Mystique, The Personal is Political, I Know Why a Caged Bird Sings, and In Search of My Mother’s Garden, and my heroes become sheroes: Audre Lorde, Toni Cade Bambara, Gloria Anzaldúa, Paula Gunn Allen, Toni Morrison, Rita Dove, Louise Erdrich, Mari Evan, Patrica Hill-Collins, Nikki Giovanni, Barbara Smith, bell hooks, June Jordon, Cherie Moraga, Sonja Sanchez, Patricia Williams, Nellie Wong, Mitsuye Yamada and Ntozake Shange … who made me scream over and over.
“Somebody just walked off with all of my stuff…I said…somebody just walked off with all of my stuff” (Ntozake Shange).
Up to that point in my life, in my mid-thirties, the three P’s addressed how I lived my vocations: the personal as black feminist, mother, and partner; the political-activist—now transplanted to “not heaven but Iowa”; and the professional as an experienced teacher of young adults. In 1988, I completed my Ph.D., which I thought was “pretty harsh duty” away from the rigor of activism but toward the rigor of study and research. I did experience a different kind of introspection not limited to framing everything as political and living personal things as political statements.
Frankly, this new introspection upset me. Disorientated me. I wobbled around looking for a new anchor of some sort … slightly embarrassed when I was with my “so-called politicos” and slightly guilty when I enjoyed Hawkeye football games and clean and neat non-industrial space. I went back to Detroit and acted like an Iowan and came back to Iowa and kept trying to fit a square peg of Detroit politics into a round hole … of Iowa. When I read that sign that said: “Iowa, a place to Grow”… I was intrigued. I wasn’t sure how. Things were just too nice… too nice and I had only the experience with things growing when things were too difficult.
“Hi, honey, do you want to have lunch today…ok…I will meet you at the….oh…that would be nice….a picnic…ok…”.
I begin to practice Dr. Kesho at Grinnell College. The voices begin to change again because I had put myself into a different con text: Rural space. Small town. Town/Gown. Middle of the cornfields. Middle of America. Predominate whiteness. Iowan cultural values. Country capital. Rural poverty. New minorities. Nature. Big Skies. Stars. Quiet nights. Neighbors who really came to visit.
This “potpourri” of new voices, listened to with this new introspection made my living in “GRIN City” feel like I was a kind of a small-town Joan of Arc. I heard voices for real.
I begin to look at the other side of political questions and non-political questions that I did not take the time to examine before. It didn’t hurt that I did not have money problems for the first time in my life. I was almost like those people on the Soaps now. It didn't hurt that I had a prestigious job — the best that a Ph.D. could acquire. It didn’t hurt that I wasn’t the mother of younger kids. It didn’t hurt that I was far far away from the pressures of the political obligations of my youth. I wasn’t hurt in the old ways.
“Can I have the number of Border’s Bookstore in Des Moines, please? Thank you.” 515-244-6034. Ring.
“Hello, do you have Zachary Lansdowne’s Rules for Spiritual Initiation, Elaine Pagels’ The Gnostic Gospels, John Dominic Crossan’s The Historical Jesus, or Paul Davies' The Mind of God. Yes…. I’d also like to read John Mack’s Passport to the Cosmos and Gregg Braden’s The Isaiah Effect, as well as Gene Roddenberry’s Last Conversations. Oh, you think I’d like Stephen Hawkins’ A Brief History of Time, Victor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning or Chardin’s Hymn of the Universe, ok, I’ll take them too.” Of course they had those books and more.
My bibles changed again and my heroes changed along the line of my unmet spiritual vocation. I became ever so open and humble to what I would call new ways of knowing, but that would be a lie, because ideas of God and soul had always been in my heart and mind (after all, I had studied with the Jehovah’s Witnesses, gone to Catechism, and attended Friday night lectures at the Mosque in Detroit with the Nation of Islam), but life in America had prioritized my survival to political questions, not to “the complexity of spiritual things.”
I could not wrap my mind around “this new kind of 21st century politics” that did not have a God and soul and consciousness. And, I did not want to have a God, be a soul or have a consciousness void of politics or social responsibility.
“Amazing grace how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me … I once was lost but now am found … was blind … but now … I see.”
I was becoming what I could never imagine: multi-vocational. I was not apologizing for it either. My inner urges and callings were stacking up like the intersections of my oppressions and privileges: black, female, heterosexual, and middle class. It was a necessity to complete some kind of circle within myself. The callings were historical, sequential, and seemed to operate like a Native American Medicine Wheel. I just could not help the compulsion to blend my family callings, with my political, feminist, spiritual inclinations.
I was responding to a summons for which my Western educations could not be the lead. I did not run. I surrendered.
I do not claim my autobiographical accounts are as neat as I have placed them in this talk. I am trying to write the “unknown” parts of my self before the “literary hounds” write me wrong. And, I do re-use my personal and public American past with leisure and license, to tell you the internal and external life and times of one — Kesho Yvonne Scott, alias "Evil Evie" — who followed in the footsteps of her heroes.
There is diversity in vocation, and I believe we have many callings in a lifetime based on one’s race, gender, social class. The list can go on and on, but the journey to vocation might be unique to the times … as I am an American, a women of African descent, a daughter from political Detroit, a spiritual being living “in heaven, which I think might be Iowa.”
I hear voices that are connected to my vocations and my ancestor’s meanderings: grand-mothers and fathers all the way back to Africa, from the North Carolina hills where the Black Meherrin Indians of my family lived and prayed, from Detroit — the city of my political birth and Iowa — where many of the Hollywood films make fun of the characters being born here. Iowa is my place of becoming.
What is a hero then to me? Is it obvious? She or he is someone you find along the way of listening to that call — taking that journey to vocation. In life, everyone has the opportunity to be a hero.
They and You take risk. They and You can possibly lose your lives or aspects of your lives and privilege in a given historical moment.
They and You cause change — with the big C and little C — and the outcomes are often something good or even great for other people, not necessarily for You or Them.
Heroes are dead but they teach. They and You are alive, and They and You are destined to teach. And, the consequences of what They and You teach — can and do — affect the thoughts and actions of others, even black girls from the Motor City or every city and hamlet in our global world.
We emulate heroes. We often take on a role through them — to find the voice we wish to project ourselves into history. The most important thing that I learned from my heroes was that my judgments matter and that I must make principled decisions about my actions. I learned to have the faith that my actions are connected to everything else and will make a difference. So I and you can sing this song:
"What a difference a day makes … 24 little hours … WE … brought the sun and the flowers where there used to be rain." Thank you.
Editor's Note: Dr. Kesho Scott was invited to give this speech for the Lilly Faculty Lecture series on "Journeys to Vocation." The talk occurred on April 19, 2007 in Herrick Chapel, Grinnell College.
Note from Kesho Scott: This year I have presented eleven community and campus wide presentations, and completed 24 interviews for the Habit of Surviving II: Black Male Alums at Grinnell College from 1950 - 2005. My 2007 Race and Ethnicity class partnered with Hubbell Elementary School in Des Moines and created an ethnic timeline of the Roosevelt Cultural District from 1908 - 2007 as a dedication to the renovations at the school. This summer, I will be putting the finishing touches on my two articles: Twenty Years of Unlearning Racism and Female Harassment in Ethiopian Universities.