Drive Time Radio and MammyAugust 10, 2009
Drive time radio can be annoying, informative, shocking, and sometimes just plain stupid. My usual 10-minute commute to the Metro has been extended this summer to 30 minutes as I have the honor of morning camp drop-off for my son and daughter. I admit to being a serial station changer. Having controls on the steering wheel is just too tempting. Many of us do the same thing with the TV remote — always assuming that there’s something better on another channel or that we’re missing something vital elsewhere. I start off the morning with a dose of gospel music and then move on to a motley cast of radio jocks (and their female sidekicks, of course).
Each morning, the Tom Joyner Morning Show does a segment called “Little Known Black History Facts” (sponsored by McDonald’s, but I won’t even get into that irony). In between the raucous guests, contests, and R&B music, this segment never fails to capture my attention, as it often highlights many “firsts” in African American history. I’d never heard of this morning’s “first,” so I listened closely.
This month marks the anniversary of the death in 1907 of Sarah Jane Woodson Early, who, according to Wikipedia, “was an American educator, temperance activist and author. She was the first African-American woman college instructor.”
Sarah Jane Woodson Early was born in Chillicothe, Ohio, in 1825. Family history has claimed that Thomas Woodson, her father, was the oldest son of Sally Hemings and President Thomas Jefferson, but the claims were never proven true. Her family exemplified the remarkably resilient African American families of that time period — three of her brothers were ministers, one served on the founding board of Wilberforce University, and two were killed by slave catchers while working on the Underground Railroad.
She was one of the first African American graduates of Oberlin College and joined the faculty of Wilberforce University in 1858 as the first African American college instructor. We can only speculate as to how many women, especially women of color, could even dream of completing secondary school at that time — with higher education beyond the spectrum of possibilities.
Despite Early’s trailblazing efforts, 150 years later African American women in the professoriate haven’t made as many strides as we would have expected. They continue to be underrepresented in the ranks of faculty. In 2007, African American female faculty in the United States only accounted for 2.8 percent (20,148) of the 703,463 full-time instructional faculty in degree-granting institutions, according to the Institute of Education Sciences. Studies also show that they are also earn less and are promoted at a slower rate than their white male and female counterparts and must overcome the two stereotypes of African American female black professionals — classified as the “Mammy” or “Sapphire.”
Being in the professional workforce for over 25 years, I am all too familiar with those stereotypical characterizations. The “Mammy” stereotype comes straight from slavery: nurturing, obsequious and happy — comfortable for white Americans. “Sapphire,” on the other hand, is sassy, hands on hips, assertive — making the mainstream uneasy with her confidence and intelligence. These stereotypes of African American women prevail across professions.
Sarah Jane Woodson Early succeeded against all odds, paving the way for African American women in higher education, but the ghosts of Mammy and Sapphire are still holding us back.