Rhonda Y. Williams, 40
Associate Professor, Department of History, Case Western Reserve University, 2004-present.
In 1985, I headed off to college at the University of Maryland College Park without any idea that I would eventually earn a PhD. The daughter of federal government employees, I would be the first person in my immediate family to earn a bachelor's degree. After my freshman year I knew I wanted to be a writer and somehow make a living doing it, and was fortunate to earn an internship at the Baltimore Evening Sun. I was supposed to be primarily an editor's gopher, but thankfully I met newspaper reporters who mentored me. One gave me one of my first in-the-field assignments: I had to cover a story about a community program in the"projects" - residential places in inner cities held in disdain and fear. When I think back on that moment, I sometimes wonder whether I showed trepidation, or had the reporter simply felt the need to assure me (a young, green journalism student) that I would both be safe and do fine. Once we arrived at the public housing complex, I met black mothers, including teen parents, who were raising families with limited resources and navigating austere and neglected neighborhoods. This assignment eventually led to my visiting, and writing about, a neighborhood and church-based parenting enrichment program that served primarily black teen mothers and a few teen fathers.
Two more newspaper internships (including one with the New York Times) and three years later, I graduated UMCP as the first black undergraduate to receive its highest honor of salutatorian and commencement speaker in its 187-year history. That same year, 1989, I began my career as a night-time general assignment reporter. But I soon discovered, that overall, the daily new events I was assigned (including dog shows and numerous weather stories, not on the Hurricane Katrina level of importance) failed to elicit my excitement or fulfill my vision of engaging in useful intellectual inquiry. I had promised myself that in five years maximum I would go back to school, or if I did not like my job in two to three years. So in 1991 at the two-year mark, I decided to seek a PhD in History. After a couple years as a graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania and always a native daughter of Baltimore, I resolved to focus my research on housing policy and marginalized people's struggles in my hometown, particularly those of poor African American women.
My first book, The Politics of Public Housing: Black Women's Struggles against Urban Inequality, and many of my subsequent articles, owe themselves to that moment in 1986 - alongside, of course, other intervening experiences (for as historians know there are always multiple shaping influences) - that launched me on a compelling journey. It was, and still is, a historical (and, for me, professional and personal) journey that has exposed decades of entrenched and systemic race, gender, and economic inequality; institutional intransigence; misanthropy and societal disgust; human impotence, pain, and fortitude; and intense struggle and magnificent gumption. Listen to Goldie Baker, a public housing and welfare rights activist who died in 2006 after over 40 years of social struggle. She took seriously challenging those in power - no matter their race. And because of that"they thought I was one crazy nigger. They wasn't used to that [laughs]. Oh, believe me, they wasn't used to no nigger talking to them ... like that"!
My next book project on street-level hustling, illicit narcotics, and urban culture after World War II is taking me on another overlapping journey - one where men and women found money, escape, pleasure, death, 'freedom,' and misery in a society that policed the boundaries of opportunity, morality, and belonging, in a society constituted by hierarchies and dreams of possibility. I don't know where this particular scholarly journey ultimately will land me, but I do know (and am still discovering) the numerous places that the illicit (and licit) high has landed the many people that I've known personally and am now meeting historically.
By Rhonda Y. Williams
Between 1955 and 1970, Shirley Wise shed her timidity as she learned more about her rights: her civil rights, legal rights, tenants' rights. By the early 1970s, the petite Wise had made an unpaid career of advocating for the poor in her housing complex and citywide. Before her political awakening Shirley Wise often said,"[L]et somebody else take care of that.... Anything that was really rocking the boat, I wasn't into that until I found out I had the legal right to do that - rock the boat." Shirley Wise's transformation—her heightened consciousness of power relations, inequality, and rights—mirrored that of other poor black women living in cities. As black freedom movements and anti-poverty programs grew in northern cities, rights, struggle, power, control, respect, and dignity became popular words - and goals. -- Rhonda Williams in"The Politics of Public Housing Black Women's Struggles against Urban Inequality"
About Rhonda Y. Williams
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