It happened again. Just as I drove into the Maryland/Northern Virginia corridor–the place I called home for eleven years as a single, and later married without children, professor—the transformation began. I felt at ease in the region. My travel route became second nature. The essence of “home” was in the air and it infused its way into my car, into my skin, into my spirit. A classic Luther Vandross song came on the radio, followed by classic Jill Scott. This “welcome ritual” made the final two hours of my drive from Pittsburgh, PA to my family’s homestead in Richmond, VA, just plain effortless and peaceful. But what about the first leg of the route from Pittsburgh to Maryland? Yes, the one with hours without a real Black radio station. You know, the journey from personal-professional-middle-of-nowhere—a region to which I relocated for a better job, better pay, and more university prestige. It takes me several days to pack, to do laundry, to forward the mail, to figure out what to do with my garbage, and to do mantras to remind me not to forget my cell, laptop, Fitbit, and Ipad chargers. It’s a drudging process, and sometimes after I’ve finally packed I feel too tired to drive. However, once on the road—as in just up the street or around the corner from my house—every mile toward home and family gives me the feeling of a bat fleeing hell. It is everything you would expect—adrenaline, joy, expectancy, anticipation, and a sense of freedom. Even brief trips “back home” feel like vacations. In fact, trips to any location where I can claim to either have roots or will have communion with a few good friends, feel like vacations.
The caveat of relocating to a new city as a mid-career boost to my professional life is that I have ended up attaining fantastic career benefit, but it’s been at the expense of communal identity and roots. It gets harder and harder to achieve “community” the older I get, and even more now, based on my status as a divorced and solo parent. In my new city, I’m a senior professor. Work life is smooth. The usual grind of publishing and attending conferences is steady. But, after four years, I only have two close friends. We all are professional transplants, with children. They are married; one has the benefit that her mother relocated along with her. But we all imagine what it would be like if the communities in which we live felt like “our own.” We imagine ourselves in traditional Black suburbs and quaint Black towns in North Carolina, Virginia, Georgia, and Maryland. I resist the urge to whine and complain when one of my friends shares that her family has been invited to a barbecue at the home of a mutual colleague from another department. I want to scream, “But why didn’t you ask if I could come?” or “Don’t you know how desperate I am to try to build my community, too?” But, instead, I remind myself that an apparent feature of this life is that “I have no village.” Others state it as having a hard time “finding our tribes.” It is a heart’s desire, and we imagine wistfully what it would be like to be a professional in our hometown or its culturally satisfying surrogate.
So, I joined a mega-church immediately, and today—four years later—I know two people at my church. New member’s class, Bible study, and choir rehearsal are challenging to attend when I have to pay a babysitter $10 an hour just to attend or if the events’ hours are so late (or so early) that they interfere with my child’s bedtime or sleep schedule (or my need to use the time for heavy reading class prep). There are no grandmothers, sisters, aunts, cousins to watch Junior for a couple of hours and then to visit with afterward over fried chicken, Pepsi, and pound cake. I could affiliate with the graduate chapter of my sorority, but the hundreds it costs to reactivate still leaves me with more events that require a babysitter or the responsibility of my share of event ticket sales to socialites in my non-existent village. My white neighbors, when I see them, never take my invitations to mingle seriously. My former apartment neighbors, locally and nationally transient, were only temporary friends because our building was like a fortress domain in which convenience was the impetus for socialization. The city is racially segregated, and it seems like I need to hire a tour guide or a private investigator to sift through the city’s “hoods” to find a compatible mate.
The point is, professional, professorial life is one career in which few colleagues are originally from the city in which they currently work. The suitability of our unique specializations and ranks for a particular university or city is difficult to predict, anticipate, and time. We rarely handpick our city of choice, though we can usually, eventually, get to our region of choice. Building a community or village or tribe is easier in our twenties and early thirties when “youth” (and even “single”) events and activities permit greater opportunities for socialization and community-building.
Am I miserable? No. I am happy wherever I can make a good living and wake up every morning to the blessings of life, health, and strength for my family. Have I conceded that I will likely retire in my current location? No. And maybe that’s the core matter of the regularly looming question about ideal location where gaining a role in and recognition as being a part of “the village” stabilizes my sense of future and place. Sometimes, it seems to be a matter of financial ability. More frequent flights, week(s)-long extended family vacations, and easy trips “home” or to visit beloved friends become the ideal, and I lock down my house and get away, not as a luxury but as a necessity for sanity. Maybe I should find a smaller, more family-oriented church (as I have in the past two cities where I lived) because the church members became my village—my dinner party guests, lunch companions, shopping or drop-by friends, walking buddies, baby-shower guests, and jewelry or make up party hostesses. But then . . . I established those connections as a single and/or childless person. Now, as a mother, there are new requisites for tribe formation. Plus, there is no longer a spouse whose village networking can mutually benefit me as part of a shared household.
Again, not a lamentation. This is my life as a professor, and maybe sharing this will show another sister (or brother) that we are all figuring this out together. I am blessed, but I acknowledge that the village is no longer in walking distance. On the other hand, African Americans (compared to our kin in Africa and the Caribbean) have had a greater luxury of not being required to leave home at an early age for academic opportunity and of not assuming that a professional career will automatically presuppose removal from the type of community that sustains. From a Nigerian perspective, Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie frames this dilemma in Americanah (2013). From an African American perspective Molefi Kete Asante in his memoir As I Run Toward Africa (2010) assesses the losses of bonded kinship due to the migrations of academic life. We feel the grief of the parents as the community loses its scholar in Camara Laye’s Guinean narrative L’Enfant Noire/The Dark Child. (1953). And, Guadeloupian Maryse Condé affirms the phenomenon, as well, in Le Couer a Rire et a Pleurer: Contes Vrais de mon Enfance/Tales from the Heart: True Stories from My Childhood (1999). So, there could be myriad cultural nuances as we locate ourselves in what can be considered either domestic or international migration. Ironically, my longing for community, particularly one framed in terms nostalgia for the exact or the type of community in which I was socialized, is absurd to my Ghanaian mentor. His experience and academic trajectory from Ghana to Germany to the U.S. does not include a vision of “professional home place.”
In the end, I take small steps to build community where I am. I make a point to chat with random older women I come across in my all-White mall. I’ve put my son in the kid’s choir and have instantly learned the names, at least, of four more women at my church. In spite of how suspicious our cyber-struck society is these days, I endure the unexpected (but all too frequent) funny looks I get when I suggest “Let’s exchange numbers.” I make a point to stay up to date with and in cyber-chat with my local acquaintances’ Facebook pages. It requires audacity and nerve sometimes to initiate community in an environment that is not racially diverse or that is insular and click-ish. So, I am choosing to take a formative view of the adages about “the village” and “the tribe” by more organically defining and constructing community wherever I am.
By Christel N. Temple, Ph. D.
Dr. Temple Associate Professor of Africana Studies and English at Temple University. She is the recipient of the Cheikh Anta Diop International Conference’s 2005 Best Scholarly Book Award for Literary Pan-Africanism: History, Contexts, and Criticism (2005). Dr. Temple’s research areas of specialization are: African World Literature, Afrocentric Cultural and Literary Theory and Criticism, Black Cultural Mythology, Intersections of History and Literature, and Theatre of African Americans and the Diaspora.