Berlisha R. Morton, PhD is an intellectual activist and performance artist who studies and performs Blackness. Coming from the deep south, Professor Morton made her way to Boston as an adjunct professor of English and Literature at Bunker Hill Community College and has recently accepted an Assistant Professorship in Liberal Arts at the Berklee College of Music.
She has had an impressive career in academia receiving her doctorate from Louisiana State University and her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Southern University and A&M College, an Historically Black College and University (HBCU) in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Staying true to her roots, her scholarship has appeared in the Encyclopedia of African American Education, The Western Journal of Black Studies, the Journal of Curriculum Theorizing, the journal, Gender and Education and in edited volumes on African American students’ college readiness and Black women’s educational philosophy.
Professor Morton has always combined her identity as a Black woman, love for storytelling and writing with art. She wrote and produced a one act play, Utterances: An Afrofuturistic Ghost Story, which is the story of a Black woman from the South who journeys through space and time to find her mamas’ gardens. Her scholarship and art are driven by a desire to communicate the contributions of women like her grandmother and great-aunt – lifelong domestic workers who had little formal education— to the U.S. educational enterprise. With this knowledge, she is constantly working with marginalized students to help them use narrative writing process to heal from incidents of trauma and tell their stories in their own ways of being and knowing.
We are so excited to welcome Professor Morton as our keynote speaker at our Queens Dinner happening this month! But first, we sat down and interviewed her to get a snippet of the kind of #BlackGirlMagic she will contribute to our event.
QC: How has being an artist influenced your writing style?
BM: Writing saved my life. Every time I got to a point in my life where I needed to breathe or I was drowning or even in the happy times, writing was always the art that came through. Art has always been my source of creativity while writing has always served as my outlet.
They are both equally as important to me because I feel like without writing there would be no art and without the art there would be no writing.
When my artistic spirit was struggling, it was my writing spirit that always pulled me through and vice versa. One always has to support the other one.
QC: When did you first realize you wanted to pursue a career in Academia?
BM: Growing up, I always had a love and appreciation for learning which sometimes got me labeled as “the teacher's pet.” Sometimes being the smartest kid in the room left you as the loneliest kid in the room so my teachers were always my friends. As a survivor of physical, sexual, and emotional trauma, the classroom became a safe space for me to understand why certain things happen to certain people and to know that I was not alone....it was an escape.
But, it wasn’t until I took a British Literature course my senior year of high school that I saw how life-changing education could be. I mean, let’s be real here - I’m a Black girl from Decatur, GA - what kind of connection would I have to British literature? But, my professor at the time, Ms. Austin, taught this class in a way where saw myself in the literature and it was saving my life. That’s when I knew I wanted to be a teacher to honor Ms. Austin, Coach Nance, and the great teachers who helped me; I wanted to provide that same safe haven for other students like me.
I never realized I could conquer the academic world and become a professor until my mentor and former Black Politics professor at Southern University, Dr. William Arp III, really pulled me in and recognized my academic ability. His influence was so important in my life because he not only believed in me but also showed me the practical way to become a professor while giving me the spiritual and emotional encouragement needed to thrive as a Black academic. Taking this Black Politics course was where I saw the classroom as a transformative space. I already knew that the classroom could be a life saving place, but past experiences also taught me that it could be a violent place. It wasn’t until this class that I realized the classroom could be a Black space, where we could talk about Black experiences and read exclusively black political philosophy. Our classroom became a libratory and Black space, and I wanted to contribute to this work.
QC: How was has your identity and experiences as a Black woman shaped your teachings?
BM: My identity as a Black woman affects my teaching because being a Black woman in America is already hard enough. You already have your particular set of challenges in a country that constantly feeds self-hatred. ‘You’re not supposed to love yourself. You can’t talk loud. You need to be thin. You need to straighten your hair, etc.’
As a Black woman in America, you’re always resisting a culture that tells you to hate yourself, so constantly practicing self-care and self-consciousness is a must because when you get into a classroom, that’s the last stand. As an educator, you become the holder of and the pathway to the American dream. And when you stand in the classroom as a Black woman you’re completely disrupting the narrative in America as to who can be give knowledge and share the American dream. So, just my mere presence in this space is challenging to people.
Also, as a proud Black southern woman, I bring my whole entire self into the classroom and that’s where the intellectual activism part comes in. I intend on using the classroom as a way to to promote readings by black women, southern women, and immigrants and present it in my beautiful and glorious way of being a Black woman. I’m audacious, bodacious, loud and in your face and a lot of students are uncomfortable with that. I just push through anyways because if racism, sexism, classism, ableism, homophobia, and transphobia are to ever end, the classroom must be a site of justice work.
People come into the classroom for liberation, so I can’t bring in these eurocentric understandings of teaching into this space because my students’ knowledge may not come from books but can from art, cooking, taking care of a family, or being a mother. So in order to tap into that, I have to be a full fledged unapologetic Black woman in this space. I can’t separate being a Black woman and a teacher because my intellectualism comes from being a Black woman.
What I can do is show my students that yes, here is this Black woman that is knowledgeable, intelligent and a professor and that can help change their perception of who and what black women are and can be, across the spectrum. It helps everyone see Blackness in a different way. Blackness is a lens that you can learn through and it’s also a lens that you can heal from - that’s what I always tell my students.
QC: What advice do you have for current Black women educators and those exploring a career in education?
BM: These institutions were not created for us Black women to grow and flourish in. Keep in mind that you’re entering an institution that was not designed for you as a Black woman to love and care for yourself and thrive.
So the ways in which they tell us we have to be in these spaces in order to be successful, will destroy your mind and heart. If you’re going into these spaces to help people who look like you, you have to be careful because theses institutions won’t let you love yourself and will kill your spirit. They’ll tell you you have to work 16 hours a day and that it’s normal to lose people you love because of that. Be aware that the pathways for success that they lay out for us is damaging. So you have to understand who you are and what your goals are because these academic institutions will make you lose yourself.
Stay centered. Know that you have to forge your own path. You can do things your own way, still be successful, and live your full life.
Remember that there are eurocentric understandings of what it means to be successful and there are tribal and afrocentric understandings of what success is. Understand where you come from to know which pathway best matches who you are.
I think it’s safe to say that many Berlisha Morton will be dropping so many gems as she leads a powerful workshop at our Queens Dinner themed “Her Over Everything.” If you did not get a chance to purchase your ticket before we sold out, you can follow Berlisha on instagram at @berlishautters and contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org for performances and speaking engagements.