I am extremely fortunate to have descended from a long lineage of strong, Black women. My mother—like her mother before her, and her mother’s mother before them—possesses a healthy sense of self. The remarkable, Worthy women in my family (that’s my family’s surname) have all been self-assured, strong, adaptable, and self-defining. Needing no validation from others to be themselves, they have been able to respect and value who they were and, consequently, they have been able to recognize, respect, and value the worth of others.
The principalship is not always viewed in this collaborative, supportive way, unfortunately. In some places it very well may be, but when I first became a school leader, I was overwhelmed by the amount of competition, chaos, criticism, and constant conflict I encountered. An unhealthy competitive spirit was fostered by leadership in my district and was commonplace among all our principals. If that environment alone was not enough to trudge through, I also had to face the harsh reality that much of my opposition was coming from people who looked like me.
Finding a support system
When I realized I had to learn to navigate the principalship on my own, I cobbled together a support system with two Black girlfriends: Dr. Sheka Houston, who served as a principal in my district, and Mrs. Kimberly Odom, who worked in a neighboring district. But it was a long journey to get to that point. I spent years worrying that perhaps the principalship was designed to tear me down. I questioned my placement and, at one point, considered leaving education altogether. And no wonder I felt alone: according to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), only 11% of principals in this country are Black, a trend that goes back at least 20 years. Luckily, along the way, I met Dr. Sharon H. Porter, a Black entrepreneur and leader, and Dr. Melissa Noland Chester, a Black entrepreneur and real estate icon. These ladies introduced me to an entire network of Black women leaders whose mission in life was to support each other. A real sisterhood!
I spent years worrying that the principalship was designed to tear me down. I questioned my placement and […] considered leaving education altogether.
My relationship with Dr. Porter, plus work on my dissertation, then exposed me to the amazing academician Dr. Clenora Hudson-Weems, who refined and named the paradigm Africana womanism. Africana womanism, she explains in Africana Womanism: Reclaiming Ourselves, “is an ideology created and designed for all women of African descent. It is grounded in African culture, and […] focuses on the unique experiences, struggles, needs, and desires of Africana women.” Family and collaboration are key in Africana womanism, as Dr. Hudson-Weems argues in Africana Paradigms, Practices, and Literary Texts, echoing the conviction of the women in my family that we must work together and build each other up if we are to live meaningful, successful lives.
I immediately connected with Dr. Hudson-Weems’ theory on a level so personal that I feel compelled to pass along what I’ve learned, especially to my fellow Black women principals. Since antiquity, my ancestors have been Africana womanists, with strength, tenacity, and strong character. My goal now is to unveil some strategies for what you can do to work toward a genuine sisterhood as well.
What Africana womanism offers us
Africana womanism relies on 18 interconnected elements. The beauty of this amazing framework is that it is not exclusionary in any way; it is designed to include men, women, and children in the improvement of ourselves, our education, and our communities.
I’d like to focus on the tenets that I think can be most useful for anyone just gaining exposure to this robust theory and eager to begin making changes in how they support a Black sisterhood in their education system.
Self-naming and self-definition
Discovery is a huge component of self-actualization. As Black women in particular, it can be very rewarding and encouraging to learn to lean deep into one’s organic self. When you commit to learning and growing for you, it makes leading a very authentic and exhilarating experience. This authenticity begins with self-naming and self-defining.
Naming and defining yourself allows you the space to answer only to what you choose to be called. As such, when you are called a failure, an angry Black woman, a tyrant, or just inadequate, you don’t have to answer. In fact, you can keep stepping with your head up high, never stopping until the name you have given yourself is called.
Another extremely important tenet of Africana womanism is adaptability. As a 21st century administrator, being adaptable and flexible is imperative. Adaptability may require us to make concessions or adopt a do-whatever-it-takes mindset. I will do whatever I have to do to ensure things work out for the good of all. If I have to co-teach a class or mop flood waters off the back hall, I will do that to ensure my students and staff are learning and growing. Sisters, know it doesn’t make you any less the principal to roll up your sleeves and pitch in to do what needs to be done. In fact, it could validate you with your students, staff, and families as a true member of the team.
Dr. Hudson-Weems says you don’t have to have a room of your own—as Virginia Woolf suggests—to become successful. An office and a desk are not required. No, after dinner and once the children have been put to bed, the kitchen table can become the desk you need to work, she says. As Black women, we can—and do—adapt to make things work. Let’s be sure we do that in the principalship, too.
Black female sisterhood
Hudson-Weems says, “The critical need for genuine sisterhood, which is essential for a positive society, cannot be overemphasized, for it is important for women, the family nucleus, to be able to communicate and assist each other in everyday decisions and activities.” Indeed, remaining true to the role of genuine sisterhood encourages us as Black women to be present when our sisters need us.
We have to be willing to be a support system for one another with that constant encouragement to persevere and stay in the game. We have to learn how to be each other’s cheerleaders and not engage in competition that is unnecessary and chaotic. I would like to encourage each of you to bear this very important concept in mind: understand that another woman doing the same thing you are doing does not make her your competition. She is your sister. Support her. Encourage her. Believe in her. Until we learn to support one another, we are going to continue to lose.
3 tips for building genuine sisterhood
All the tenets of Africana womanism are worthy of your time and exploration. I, and many others, could write endlessly on each. But because I struggled most from a lack of sisterhood when I entered the principalship—and because I’ve been lucky enough to know the deep value of female camaraderie all of my life—I want to be sure to provide you with some specific things you can start doing right now to build a genuine sisterhood with the Black educators around you. We’ll all be better for it.
1. Don’t view other Black women as direct competition
You know all those things you see in a sister that would make you feel like you need to compete? Instead of competing, turn the thoughts into something positive. Pay a compliment. Reflect on how you could develop the quality you admire. Ask for mentorship.
2. Be approachable
I understand wanting to be standoffish. It’s a way to stay clear of drama or even to protect yourself from taking on more than you can bear. But it’s also important to embrace our sisters and welcome them to approach you whenever they need to. Small things can help you be approachable. Try pausing a little longer when you greet someone, long enough to make eye contact and for your sister to really answer the question, “How are you?” Consider sending emails or texts just to connect with people, with no agenda other than to say hello.
3. Refuse to be self-conscious
You’re great. How do I know that, even though I haven’t met you? Because you’ve made it this far into this blog post and are clearly committed to trying to build genuine sisterhood with your fellow Black educators. So be comfortable being you. Be proud of your organic self, and aim to understand where self-doubt comes from so you can overcome it. Your self-confidence will encourage your sisters to be proud, too.
4. Celebrate your sisters
Encourage your sisters in leadership by calling them by their chosen name or assigning them one of your own—Successful, Sister, Friend, Queen, Extraordinary—because of something you see in them. Being able to celebrate with your sisters demonstrates your strength of character and commitment to strengthening your community.
The more, the merrier
I, like Toni Morrison in her famous speech “Cinderella’s Stepsisters,” am alarmed by the violence that women do to each other. Professional violence, competitive violence, emotional violence. All designed to destroy one another. In this riveting address, Morrison encourages us to never oppress or enslave our sisters, or our stepsisters.
As Black women in leadership, we can begin our journey to developing genuine sisterhoods by refusing to subjugate our sisters in any way. There is plenty of room at the top for all of us (with only 11% of us holding principal roles, I’d say there’s more than plenty of room). Don’t allow the world to convince you there isn’t space. Instead, celebrate your sisters and remember that you don’t have to dim someone else’s light for yours to shine brightly.
Keep climbing and doing your thing, but commit to this concept: I will lift while I climb.