There are few people I admire more than my friend and colleague Lupe Davidson. Not only is she intelligent AF and gorgeous inside and out, she simply exudes enthusiasm and edgy energy. I love being in her company. So, when we discussed who to proFile for our proFstyle segment of the magazine, Lupe immediately came to mind. Using Lupe’s own stylish wardrobe and bitchin’ presence, we set out to capture her on campus in ways that speak volumes about the poise and authority of OU’s women. Lupe also agreed to share with us her background, interests and perspectives. As the Director of Women and Gender Studies at OU, Lupe is no stranger to what makes women tick. She shares her insight into how and why bodies matter, her thoughts on beauty culture, and why sometimes you just have to say “Fuck It.”
proF: Can you tell us a bit about your background – where you are from, early days, anything you want to share?
LD: My parents are from Costa Rica. My mom immigrated to America in the mid-1960s. My mom left behind four children in Costa Rica. Like many people, my mom worked hard and saved enough money to bring my father, my four sisters and my uncle to this country. My mom’s bravery and desire for a better life helped a lot of people in my family. I was born in Syracuse, New York. My mom was 42 years old and had three children since coming to the US. I’m technically the youngest of eight children. When my parents split up, my dad had two other children. So there are 10 of us. Families are complicated! I grew up in the hood, immigrant parents who had little education, in a house that was challenging. One thing my parents did have was a sense that America was a place where one could rise. They did their best. They are both gone now, and I think about them a lot. I appreciate their wanting better for their children.
proF: What drew you to your area of study?
LD: Well, I began as an English major and went on to earn a MA in English. I really like words. I loved poetry as a child and I loved to read. When I discovered that you could teach literature for a living, I was floored! The thought that I could spend time with words was so freeing. People may find this strange, but I really thought I was going to be a Miltonist! I love John Milton and I had a mentor who was a Miltonist and was really guiding me in that direction. When I got to graduate school, I realized that path was not for me. Not because I ceased to love Milton but because there were more urgent things to attend to – like what it means to be a black woman in society. Issues of race, identity, agency, liberation, etc. were always there. But it was graduate school where I really began to think critically about my place and resistance to oppression. In the end, I chose to study rhetoric because it allowed me to ask a broader set of questions.
proF: You recently taught a dream course entitled “Bodies that (Don’t) Matter.” Can you tell us about this course and why you wanted to focus on this issue?
LD: I co-taught this course with my colleague Dr. Kirsten Edwards. Speaking for myself, I wanted to tackle this subject in the space of the classroom because I needed to discuss black and brown deaths in society. It is the topic of our time and as a campus community we couldn’t and shouldn’t avoid it. I wanted to challenge the students to think critically about what it means to matter; and to grapple with the real implications of what it means for a body not to matter.
proF: Can you tell us what it means to “matter”? And who gets to decide this? How do we determine who matters?
LD: Great set of interrelated questions here. During the course of the semester, we struggled with many of these issues, and I plan to address some of these issues in my next book project. When I lectured on “mattering,” I focused on private versus public mattering. On private mattering, I asked the students to consider mattering in terms of their personal lives through questions like “how important do you feel to others?” and “how much do other people depend on you?” From there, we broaden the discussion to think about ways to measure social mattering (think larger society) and then I complicated the discussion further by introducing race by asking the questions “what does racial mattering look like?” and “thinking about your own race how do you know you matter?” and “what social clues tell you that you matter”? I think that we can maker/measure mattering based on things like access, if you are treated with dignity and if you have a higher chance of dying after giving birth.
proF: Do some bodies matter more than others? Why is this and how does it happen? What are some of the consequences?
LD: The simple answer is yes, some bodies matter more than others. There are socio-economic factors, there are gender factors, there are factors related to disability, there are educational factors, there are racial factors and for some bodies, all of these things are factors. To deny that our society has a hierarchy of mattering is to engage in bad faith.
proF: How can and should we make changes to this, so bodies that don’t matter now matter in the future?
LD: I think it begins by acknowledging that we have an issue and then we can begin to think together about ways to see, validate, support and uphold the concept of intrinsic value of everyone. As critical as I can be, like my parents, I believe in possibility of this nation and its various people. When I get down, I reread a portion of Obama’s second inaugural address, where he stated:
We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths – that all of us are created equal – is the star that guides us still; just as it guided our forbearers through Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall; just as it guided all those men and women, sung and unsung, who left footprints along this great Mall, to hear a preacher say that we cannot walk alone; to hear a King proclaim that our individual freedom is inextricably bound to the freedom of every soul on Earth.
“…that all of us are created equal…the star that guides us still…” Obama’s words give me heart and strength.
proF: Speaking of the body, can we also add to this a discussion about beauty culture? What is beauty culture and how do we recognize it?
LD: I don’t know if I have a good (read: not snarky) response to “what is beauty culture”! The feminist in me understands and is critical of over-attention on looks, weight, beauty products, anti-aging hocus-pocus. The other part of me takes seriously the desire for many to feel attractive, whatever that term may mean. Like other forms of hegemony, there is no outside of beauty culture, but there are forms of resistance and ways of being and maintaining your agency. To be a dark skinned black woman wherever means that you always struggle with beauty, since typically we are always the opposite of whatever beautiful is. When I was little, I just said, “Fuck it. Maybe I’m not what society calls beautiful, but I’m going to keep on being and becoming.” I have devoted my time to affirming black girls and women. ♀