When Ula Taylor teaches, she doesn’t rely on PowerPoint presentations or videos to make a point. She tells stories.
“I think history is about telling stories so I tell a lot of stories in my classes,” says Taylor. “Primarily, I tell the stories as a way to complicate the history they think they know.”
[Music: “Dog and Pony Show” by Podington Bear]
Taylor is the chair of the Department of African American Studies at UC Berkeley. When she joined the department in 1992, right after graduate school, she was embraced by black feminist scholars, she says, who gave her support and guidance, helping her develop her scholarship and become the leader she is today.
Now, a professor in the department, Taylor teaches a course on African American history from 1890 to 1980. When she talks about the civil rights movement, she tells the lesser known story of how it all began.
“People know about Rosa Parks. People know about Martin Luther King,” she says, “and they should. And they know that it’s the Montgomery bus boycott that ignited a certain kind of Southern civil rights movement.”
[YouTube Clip of Martin Luther King Jr. speaking in church: “A bus protest which literally electrified a nation.”]
But she says they often don’t know that the boycott was started by the Women’s Political Council, a group made up of more than 200 black women led by Jo Ann Robinson in Montgomery, Alabama.
“They kept a critique of all of the horrific ways that black people were forced to ride the bus,” says Taylor. “They wrote letters to the bus company. They wrote letters to the mayor basically saying that there needed to be a more humane way of riding the bus. So once the bus boycott was called, it was because they had engaged in all of this organizing effort. They just basically needed to put a day and a time for it to happen.”
Yes, Martin Luther King Jr. was an amazing, charismatic leader for all of us, but it was the Women’s Political Council that provided an anchor and grounding for him to even come into prominence.
“Do you think that that’s a common theme with women leadership — that they provide the anchor, but maybe don’t get the glory? I ask.
“Yes, I think that in almost every political movement you’re going to see women in the background. You’re going to see women doing a lot of the work that positions them outside of the limelight.”
But there were often women at the center, Taylor says, like Ella Baker, a civil rights activist who was among the founders of Martin Luther King Jr.’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference and helped launch the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.
[YouTube clip of Ella Baker speaking at a 1974 solidarity rally in Puerto Rico: “Brothers and sisters in the struggle for human dignity and freedom, I am here to represent the struggle that has gone on for 300 or more years.”]
Taylor says Baker advocated for group leadership, instead of relying on one person to carry a cause.
“She was an amazing activist who understood that if you put all of your hopes on a messiah, when that person is gone, then what happens to the movement,” says Taylor. “So she really, really, really hammered home the importance of group-centered leadership — that you have to see the leader in yourself in your group as opposed to relying on anybody outside of yourself.”
[YouTube clip continued: “I had to learn that hitting back with my fist one individual was not enough. It takes organization. It takes dedication. It takes the willingness to stand by and do what has to be done when it has to be done.”]
“I think it’s important to understand that there are different ways of being a leader,” she says. “But because we live in a country in a culture where we oftentimes identify leadership as a talking head, we don’t understand all of the thinking that goes behind a lot of the ideas that the talking head is even articulating.”
[Music: “Sun Won’t Rise” by Ketsa]
Taylor says she tries to empower her students to get out and start creating the world they want to live in, instead of waiting for someone else to do it.
“They have the skill set and the critical tool kit to address all of these multiple crises that are happening in America.”
Homelessness, drug addiction, gentrification, racism…
“They have to understand that they can chip away at the crisis, that it may not happen overnight, but that they have a skill set, that they have access to resources that they may not even imagine.”
She encourages students to volunteer — to create patterns of engagement that will follow them throughout their lives.
For the past 15 years, Taylor has organized a black faculty women’s group that meets once a semester. It’s a way for them to stay connected on campus and offer each other support and mentorship, something that Taylor has relied in her career at Berkeley.
“I think it’s important to feel like you’re doing something to create the world that you want to live in, that you want your children to live in and your grandchildren to live in.
[Music continued: “Sun Won’t Rise” by Ketsa]
The time is now, she says. We can’t wait for anyone else to do it for us.