Dr. Alexis Brooks De Vita

“You may have very strong feelings about things that differ from what I tried to teach you. But if you become articulate and proactive, then I did what I owed you as your professor.”

Summary:

Friendship doesn’t come often with professors. Usually we send our professors away after struggling through their course, hoping not to bump into them in the hallway. But if you’re an ambitious student who made it through her class, Dr. Alexis Brooks De Vita can not only be a friend, but someone you’ve felt like you needed your entire life.

“You may have very strong feelings about things that differ from what I tried to teach you. But if you become articulate and proactive, then I did what I owed you as your professor.”

This teaching philosophy is a reflection of her experience as a writer, mother, and a child born into a world of upheaval and self reliance.

She moved from Mississippi to “Mudtown” as a young girl, a couple of years before the Watts riots in California.

“There was a stretch near Watts called Mudtown,” said Dr. Brooks. “It was called that because there where a lot of African Americans from Mississippi. ‘Mississippi Mud’”.

Not long after she moved to California, her mother moved the family to Uganda for a project that provided teachers to schools and teacher training colleges in East Africa. But once they arrived in Uganda, they faced culture shocks and even denials by Ugandans that African Americans existed.

“Even educated Africans, they often have not heard of or did not believe in the existence of African American, as if they were an urban myth,” said Dr. Brooks.

Brooks held on to her African American roots. With Black Panther cousins in the states and Ebony magazine delivered to her doorstep- she tug on her afro with ivory picks as she debated with classmates and professors alike.

But soon, Idi Amin gained power and Uganda became a dangerous place. Her brother was sent to school in Kenya while she was sent all the way to an elite Switzerland boarding school.

“I was around a bunch of elitist Euro-Americans, in a boarding school in Switzerland, 24 hours a day, and I’m wearing an afro, and I’m talking about Ugandan politics and The Panthers and pro Angela Davis,” said Dr. Brooks.

Even though she often felt alienated because of the color of her skin, she kept fighting for what she believed in, all while getting an elite, Westernized education that is usually reserved for the privileged.

After it became too dangerous to stay in Uganda, her mom took her and her brother back to West LA. With the Watts riots and the elimination of the Black Panthers, West LA was a different place from the one she left when she was 10. And with her mom taking classes at UCLA, 14 year old Brooks was left to invent herself.

Years later, after getting married, having children, getting out of a marriage, and settling down in Houston, she reflects on her experiences.

“A lot of people need an opportunity to see things differently. To get away from the script. In that way, if they agree with me or not isn’t what’s important. What’s important is: did I teach them to find out what they really think and to develop that? And then to take a stand.”

Because of the experiences she went through, and her complicated past, she views it as her duty to help students invent themselves, just as much as she had to invent herself.

But there’s always an underlying feeling that she could’ve done more to help a student. Even though having to push through can sometimes be painful, but it’s what keeps her going as she couldn’t imagine doing anything else.

Interview:

So, Dr. Brooks. You were born in Watts California.

Yes, that’s right. You remember!

Yeah… Well I also looked it up.
Could you tell me a little bit about growing up in Watts?

Yes. So in Los Angeles a lot of people came from Mississippi, which is where my mother was born, all her siblings were born, they were all born on the plantation my mother’s side of the family had actually been enslaved on.

My grandfather at some point was trying to get everybody out to California because his wife was dying of tuberculosis and couldn’t be treated [because she was African American]. A lot of Mississippians came to California with the promise that you can be paid for your work.

There was a stretch near Watts called Mudtown. It was called that because there where a lot of African Americans from Mississippi. “Mississippi Mud”. My earliest memories were of the white projects in Watts.

The white projects?

They were white. They were painted white, not white people, but buildings.

I understand. So you didn’t stay in Watts for long, right?

Not very long, no.

You went to Uganda afterwards?

Yes! My mother became a teacher and at the end of the 60s she joined a movement called Teacher Education in East Africa, and we went to Uganda.

What was that like?

Well, it was initially a huge culture shock. That’s where I found out that Africans, because I went into the school while my mother was teaching, I found out that Africans didn’t even know about African Americans.

You know even educated Africans, they just never even heard of African Americans. We knew other professors, and a lot of professors, even in Kenya and big universities, they often have not heard of or did not believe in the existence of African Americans… as if they were an urban myth!

How old were you when you were in Uganda?

I was 10 when we left but we had training in New York so I was actually 11 by the time we got there.

And so for me, it was a shock you know, just the whole thing. Because I had black panther cousins, you know, we had the Watts Riots… I knew all about African Americans’ efforts to get back to their roots, that’s why we were even in Uganda. So to get there and find out that people don’t even believe you exist, because they identify what language you speak, what clothes you wear, what food you eat: that’s your tribe. That’s your race.

So as far as they were concerned, every time they saw us, we were Europeans. We spoke English at home.

Did you hold on to this African American identity when you went to Uganda or did you assimilate yourself to the Ugandan culture?

That’s a great question. I think because of my age, I probably changed in ways I was not aware of. But that was just the beginning, because after we were there Idi Amin took over.
He was really dangerous, and my mother was one of the Americans who chose to stay in Uganda. But she sent me and my brother away to boarding school: she sent him to boarding school in Kenya and she sent me the boarding school in Switzerland, just entirely out of the country.

And that was another culture shock.

There you go. So it was an American boarding school full of wealthy European Americans, so i’d say between becoming like my friends in school in Uganda (and that was two different tribes because we lived in two different places, so they were very different already) and then going to the boarding school, I think I changed a lot in many different ways.

Did you always hold onto your African American side to yourself?

Definitely. It was very very hard.

I think that’s why there are people in East Africa today who believe that African Americans exist, because of people like my mother. And then sending me around and sending my brother around… who insisted that I am American, but I am descended from Africans who were enslaved there. And you would have to tell them.

You had to know your history if you wanted to not get beaten down in these conversations… And then when they say stuff like “well why don’t I know about [slavery]?” I would have to say “well I guess your ancestors didn’t didn’t keep a record of it, if they didn’t like what they did.”

I really thought all the slavery had been in West Africa, so I often used to say “well you wouldn’t know because it happened in West Africa”.

So when you were in Switzerland, where you aware or did you have any concept of oppression? Or in better words, did you feel like a black hat in a room full of white hats?

I was definitely different so it wasn’t just Uganda. It wasn’t just being African-American. It was being an African American who is raised to be proud of being African-American.

So right before I left Uganda, because we used to still get Ebony and Essence magazine delivered all the way to Uganda, I knew all about Angela Davis and the Black Panthers. I had cousins, like I said, who were in the Black Panthers in LA, so I had started (it wasn’t easy) I had started trying to tease my hair.

My hair was very long and I had worked really hard to wear an afro. I had one of these pics that are columns made of wood or Ivory, really ripping my hair out. But I got that fro up and I wore it to Switzerland. So you can imagine around a bunch of elitist Euro-Americans, in a boarding school in Switzerland, 24 hours a day, and I’m wearing an afro, and I’m talking about Ugandan politics and Panthers and pro-Angela Davis- they believe she’s a criminal and a murderer and liar and all that.

I had one or two real friends, we’re still in touch on Twitter, but other than that I felt like there was a lot of being an object, you know? Being an issue. A walking issue.

Would you call it a fight?

It often was.

It was often very uncomfortable and little things could bring it out. I was in the lower school with younger people. There was an upper school too. The owner of the school would buy these mansions… it was a private school. I could only go because the government paid. My mother chose it because she thought it would give me the best education.

So here I am in the lower school of this mansion in Switzerland with armor in the dining hall… you know, living this European history because that’s where we traveled. We traveled to France and Italy in Russia, so it was a wonderful education, but only the people who were privileged to receive it had very wealthy parents.

I did not. I was from the projects. My mother was a teacher.

You could say something that didn’t mean anything and it could be a fight. Many of these people thought they were liberal and then they meet their first African-American, and-

They’re not so liberal anymore.

There you go.

So when did you come back to the states?

We came back to the States when I was turning 14, if not I was still 13 turning 14. And things were very different at that point. The government had said to get out of Uganda, [Idi Amin] is dangerous and crazy and we can’t protect you.

My mother had to come back but she was going into a doctoral program at UCLA. So we were living in West LA, in UCLA in student housing and it really felt like everything had changed. Everything was in upheaval, the Black Panthers had been destroyed, my mother was getting a doctorate, all my relatives were different, the US was different, so it was the kind of thing where you had to invent yourself.

So when I was 14 I had to invent myself if I was to make it.

How did you make it to UC Boulder?

Oh well, that’s where I got my Master’s and doctorate. That was when I first got married.

By then gangs had taken over, and I had cousins who still lived in Watts or South Central. It just felt like, seriously, with my genetic background, i’m going to have these children in LA, I wasn’t living in a wealthy area… it just seemed like I had to get out.

I had to get my education and I couldn’t do that if I stayed in LA. The social pressure was just too great, so I ended up just trying through UC Davis. I’d make myself get an education, so that became a big long haul, because meanwhile, my husband was always trying to keep me from leaving him. So he kept us moving further and further east and North. I got my bachelor’s at the University of Vermont.

When I finally did manage to leave my husband, my mother got us, my children and me, a little house in Colorado. Then I discovered that at UC Boulder I could get degrees in comparative literature, so that’s how I ended up there.

Then after a while, you eventually made your way to Texas Southern.

First I was teaching at Colorado, but that was part-time. The first full-time job was actually at St. Mary’s and Notre Dame, and that’s because they offered to put all three of my college-age children through Notre Dame or St Marys for free.

I took Saint Mary’s, but here I was again. It was Switzerland all over again- I was the only African-American faculty member.

So I started applying everywhere but this was the only HBCU that gave me an offer. So I was really excited to come.

When did you write the book Left Hand of the Moon?

I wrote it when I was finishing my doctorate. I ended up, a couple times, taking my family to New Orleans. Have you ever had a weird experience you just can’t explain? So one of those trips to New Orleans we stayed in this old hotel. I wanted my children to see Mardi Gras safely, and my husband and I had the strangest experience.

The more I tried to forget it, set it aside, I couldn’t. Eventually, just before I finished my doctorate, to clear everything else so I could actually write my dissertation, I had to write other things. I wrote things for my daughters, but I wrote this one for myself. Just so I could just get it out.

Wasn’t the plot line pretty similar to what your own personal background is? A couple goes from Mississippi to LA….

I never thought of that! Wow, I knew I wrote it for myself… thank you so much! I had written a lot for my daughters, but I never thought of it like that. I’ll have to go back and take a look at it.

Well you’ve also written other books and have also edited compilations of short stories… would you say that those have anything to do with your own personal life?

See I would have said no until [laughter].

I would have said no, but now that I think about it, when I wrote about the 1855 murder case of Missouri vs Celia, and that’s another one when I wrote when I was writing my dissertation, I had to get it out. because it’s a true murder case and was such a miscarriage of Justice that there were points in there, because I had a violent marriage, there were points in there where I felt like “am I talking about her or am I talking about myself?”.

Then I thought, well this is why I could write about her. I could sympathize, and it felt like I understood.

So that’s a nonfiction story right?

It’s a true story but I wrote it like a novel, because I’m not a historian. Does that make sense?

That makes sense. What is the role writing has in your life?
These are great questions. I’m going to tell you the truth. Absolutely, tell you the truth.

I was a little bit off as a developing child. I learn to talk very late, so reading… I actually learned to read before I learn to talk. Reading taught me how to talk, and for me, writing was a way for me to learn how to speak well.

I’ve written all my life. My articles and book chapters that I get invited to write now…they really help me clarify what I see and so they help me to understand the world that I live in.

I try to share what I see as insights with other people, in case those insights help other people.

Could you talk a little bit about your career as a professor?

Thanks yeah. When I was trying to get my education and I was still married. I just needed it for myself, I needed to know that I could have done this, but at the time I assumed I would never be able to get rid of my husband. So I thought I’d always be at home with my degree but what happened along the way was as hard as it was for me to learn to talk.

I learned that it’s also very hard meeting people to find words to help them understand the society we live in. I felt like, while I grew up in Uganda, also in Switzerland, privileged right? I’ve gone from poverty to Switzerland. I feel like I’ve seen a lot. Maybe I can help people understand something that they know, but maybe don’t have the words for yet.

With teaching, when I found out I had opportunities to teach, what I also learned is- a lot of people need an opportunity to see things differently. To get away from the script. In that way, if they agree with me or not isn’t what’s important. What’s important is: did I teach them to find out what they really think and to develop that, and then to take a stand.

You may have very strong feelings about things that differ from what I tried to teach you. But if you become articulate and proactive, then I did what I owed you as your professor.

So your experience as a professor has overall been enriching and fulfilling?

It’s been amazing.

I think I get over-invested in my students because I have students who remind me of my sons and my daughters, or students who remind me of other people who have been really important to me in my life.

So I would say, yes. It’s enriching. It’s challenging. You always feel like you didn’t give quite enough, or you didn’t always give what that person needed at that time. Or you could have given up.

It’s also painful because you’re never satisfied.

Could you imagine doing anything else?

Oh, no!

You’re going to continue teaching?

Until I retire I only have a few years [laughter].

Do you have any message for the students?

I really want our students to understand that the nation needs them. They need to do the best with their education. For themselves. For their own futures.

They really need to do the best they can with their education for the nation. Since this nation affects all the nations in the world, it’s a global need.

We need them to get the best education. Be well informed. Be well prepared. This is the chance to ask your professors tough questions. Go out there in the world and be like “okay I have my opinions. I know how to get more information. I know where I stand on issues. I know how to be flexible”.
Take everything out of this opportunity because the world has gotten rough fast.

Thanks a lot.

Author: Herald Staff