“Womanish is the Perfect Description for Me”: Remembering Leslie Brown

13873100_965125852930_351923303641388704_nWomanist: 1. From womanish. (Opp. of “girlish,” i.e. frivolous, irresponsible, not serious.) A black feminist or feminist of color. From the black folk expression of mothers to female children, “you acting womanish,” i.e., like a woman. Usually referring to outrageous, audacious, courageous or willful behavior. Wanting to know more and in greater depth than is considered “good” for one. Interested in grown up doings. Acting grown up. Being grown up. Interchangeable with another black folk expression: “You trying to be grown.” Responsible. In charge. Serious.

~Alice Walker, In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens

Womanish is the perfect description for me at age seven, possessing too much knowledge, too much attitude, and too much mouth.

~Leslie Brown, “How a Hundred Years of History Tracked Me Down

I am among those who are shocked and stunned by Leslie Brown’s death and who are left to try our best to continue Leslie’s legacy while mending the wounds that are fresh from her absence. I am among those who grieve, but who yet must continue doing the day-to-day work an academic institution requires. I am also among those who are left to mourn with her students past and present, her departmental colleagues, a grand collective of staff and administrators, and Berkshire County community members who were touched by Leslie’s life.

The consummate historian, Leslie Brown was best known for her pivotal work, Upbuilding Black Durham: Gender, Class, and Black Community Development in the Jim Crown South, her steadfast presence on the digital archives project Beyond the Veil, and for the brilliant work she crafted with her partner Annie Valk, Living with Jim Crow: African American Women and Memories of the Segregated South. She was a historian to her core and believed in the methodology of deep remembering that can only be summoned by the adept combination of archival diligence and oral history.

At Williams College, where I had the opportunity to work with her on a more day-to-day basis, she was known as a visible presence and voice for her work on Williams Reads and Claiming Williams, two of our campus wide efforts to promote broad intellectual engagement, common reading, and challenging conversation. She is also remembered for being an active participant in the life and work of the History Department, and for her presence at The Davis Center, at Rice House, and in our programming in Africana Studies. You do not have to travel far in the pathways of Hollander Hall to know that Leslie was an engaged, committed, and deeply generous colleague, teacher, and friend.

When Leslie and I met in 2010, we spent quite a bit of time talking about her essay, “How a Hundred Years of History Tracked Me Down.” Reading that essay after graduate school made me excited to return to Williams College, where I had previously finished writing my dissertation. I knew if there was someone there who was as committed to finding and creating a home at Williams for someone who looked like Leslie and me that I would be okay.

And in that essay, Leslie’s words about herself were absolutely true, from the time she was a child until her death. Not only was she “wise and staid, a cautious listener, and a careful observer,” she was completely womanish. She would audibly scoff at well-meaning but ill-worded statements. She would snicker at students and colleagues alike who struggled to make sense of the deeply divided and deeply contentious spaces in which black and white folks reside. She would even lambaste those who would foolishly try to convince her that institutionally and interpersonally, we could not be better, do better, and want more for ourselves—in Williamstown and in the world. And in the midst of all of those ways in which she called folks out, she also offered herself with openness, bigheartedness, and a willingness to join others as they found their way. Maintaining that balance between calling for accountability and supporting was not easy for Leslie to maintain, but there was never a question about her integrity or of her bottom line motivations to make Williams College a comfortable place for those who might not otherwise feel at home.

So yes, I am a part of a community that is grappling in the most heart-wrenching ways with Leslie’s death. Yet I know that Leslie would want me to continue on with our work, the work of creating a space at Williams College where black and brown students especially can make this place their own.

Members of the Department of Africana Studies Program with Leslie Brown (center) at Williams College in 2012

There are many things that I will miss about my colleague and friend Leslie Brown. I will miss her place in our black faculty gatherings. I will miss her candor and occasional rancor during monthly faculty meetings. I will miss her reading folks their rights. I will miss her impromptu “growing up black” history lessons. I will actually miss the ways she would yell at me. I will miss our reminiscing about Durham and Duke. I will miss our office conversations, the dinner parties and cook outs (the planned ones, and especially the impromptu ones), and doing the electric slide with her. I will miss Wednesday night drinks at Hops & Vines. I will miss arguing with her (arguments of the cussing kind, for sure), and her love for kindling fires of the literal and metaphorical kind.

More than anything, I will miss her laugh. Her outrageous, hearty, and willful laughter. The kind of laughter that echoed down the hallways of Hollander Hall and Rice House and made our colleagues and any passerby open their doors or poke their heads out in search of what was so funny. I will miss our womanish conversations…especially the ones that possessed too much knowledge, too much attitude, and waaaay too much mouth.

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Rhon Manigault-Bryant

LeRhonda S. Manigault-Bryant is Associate Professor of Africana Studies at Williams College. She is the author of Talking to the Dead: Religion, Music, and Lived Memory among Gullah/Geechee Women (Duke University Press), and co-author of Womanist and Black Feminist Responses to Tyler Perry’s Productions (Palgrave Macmillan) with Tamura A. Lomax and Carol B. Duncan. You can find her adding colorful commentary to the digital universe via Twitter @DoctorRMB.

Comments on ““Womanish is the Perfect Description for Me”: Remembering Leslie Brown

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    “Calling people out” and an undeniable promotion of the “methodology of deep remembering” are among the many strengths of womanism. Thanks, Dr. Brown, for the reminder. Rest in peace and with the ancestors.

  • Avatar

    Well said. I had not spoken to her in a long time, but taking three of her classes at WashU changed the way I viewed history. For that, I am in mourning too.

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