Writing for My Life: Voices of My HBCU Writing Teachers

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Dr. Faye Spencer Maor is Professor of English at North Carolina A&T State University where she teaches composition, technical writing and courses in African American Literature and rhetoric. She received the PhD in Writing Studies from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. Her research includes  work on feminism/womanism, African American writing pedagogy and literature.


Back in the 1970’s, I attended an HBCU by default for undergraduate school. It was the only college to admit me unconditionally and offer me financial assistance. The school gave me a scholarship and, to my surprise, placed me in honors English composition courses. Teachers were tough. We had no computers or internet (primitive, I know). My four years there were wondrous. I was safe, intellectually challenged and “unapologetically Black” (as they say today). It was there I was able to learn how to write, encouraged to write and given a platform to write.

During my senior year, the advisor to the campus newspaper pulled me aside and told me I should go to graduate school. He told me my mind and abilities should not be limited to the job offer I had to work for a small-town newspaper. I ended up taking his advice and going to a large PWI (Predominately White Institution) out west for a Master’s degree.  Things went well there until I took a course from a professor who also happened to be the principal professor in the area in which I wanted to concentrate. In his class I made C’s and B- ‘s on my papers (that’s an F in graduate school).

“Concerned” about me, this professor asked me to come to his office one day. In that meeting he told me he was “troubled” because I “couldn’t write” and needed to “check your papers line-by-line” and it was going to be hard for me to succeed. After all I was “deficient” in my education because I attended one of “those” schools and was admitted to their program because they were doing what they could for “Affirmative Action.”

Devastation! I was humiliated and heart broken. I cried as I walked across campus because basically this man had just told me that getting a Master’s degree was impossible for me. I was pitiful and was only there because the university needed Black people!

I went back to my efficiency grad student housing and cried and cried. What was I going to do?!  I was letting everybody down – myself, my family, my teachers…. Many of my friends were doing well working at big newspapers and television stations, but I was about to flunk out of a Master’s program because I couldn’t write! Why didn’t I know earlier? Was my writing really that bad? Were my teachers back at my alma mater wrong about me?

A week of depression, crying and venting went by and then I decided to call my mentor who told me to go to graduate school in the first place. All I can remember of the phone call were two questions. The first was “How many people look like you in that class?” The second question was “What grades have you made in other classes on your papers?” My mentor made me stop, think critically, weigh the evidence, and make a conclusion – the very thing many of us teachers say we are trying to get our students to do.

Examine is exactly what I did. I examined the fact that the only person who had trouble with my writing was this one professor. I managed to make A’s on papers written in other professors’ classes…. imagine that! I was a staff writer for a local magazine too.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I was not the world’s best writer back them, but I also wasn’t any worse than many of my peers in the program.  This experience got me to thinking in a more poignant way about the pervasiveness of racism in almost every aspect of my life, and that even though I had gotten into a graduate program that was respected and one that I thought meant I had a little something going-on, I would have to deal with racism in the academy and no matter what, I better not forget who I was, how I looked or where I had gone to school. This experience taught me that despite what I thought about how well I was prepared, there would always be people in the academy who saw me and my undergraduate preparation as inferior. More importantly, I began to see how important and valuable and well prepared those teachers at my HBCU had made me. In both implicit and explicit ways, they knew what I had to face, whether I realized it at the time or not, and they got me ready for it.

Ultimately, that teacher did me a favor. I decided that I wanted to teach writing at HBCUs. That institution gave me an education, I was learning, that was just as good, if not better, than what I saw at PWIs. I want all students of color to get what I got at my HBCU, and they should be able to get it no matter where they choose to go to school.

So, my career has been varied, but always seated in my real-life experiences. I teach writing to students who are yet like me, given a last-minute chance by a school that may not have been their first choice. I teach them to prepare them for experiences like mine once they leave our HBCU. I want to be the voice in their heads reminding them to weigh the evidence, find the fallacies and reach a new conclusion about themselves and the world in which they find themselves, and after they’ve done that, do the same for someone else.