Through Mama's Eyes: A Conversation with Cheylon Woods and Kiwana McClung
Through Mama’s Eyes: Unique Perspectives in Southern Matriarchy is a collection of interdisciplinary essays that explore the concept of motherhood in the South and its effect on American society. Each essay is an invitation to engage in deeper conversations about southern matriarchy and its perceptions as a whole. Get to know a little about the brains behind this book, Cheylon Woods and Kiwana McClung, in the interview below!
What made you want to facilitate discussions on southern matriarchy?
Cheylon Woods: I was born and raised in California by two southern parents. It was important to my mom that I had some “southern-ness” instilled in me so there were some things she went out of her way to teach me. She liked to call me a “G.R.I.T.S” (Girl Raised In The South), and it has always had a weird, profound impact on me. Fast forward to me living in Louisiana for more than a decade and having graduated from three Louisiana universities, plus working at one, I tracked patterns in how people believed they were supposed to engage. Many of the things I noticed were traits anecdotally attributed to how “Mama” would expect people to act. When I would lead tours, programs, and/or classes on Gaines’s work, my audiences wanted to talk more about the “motherly” characters in the novels than any of the others, and I wanted to dig deeper into the impact the concept of “southern matriarchy” really played in our lives.
Kiwana McClung: The desire was born from a conversation between Cheylon and myself. We had just collaborated on a program for Black History Month and Women's History Month. As we reflected on the program, we realized that the general theme was the lives and influences of family leaders who are women. Cheylon spoke about how the women leaders in her life had made her the woman she is today, and I explained my own experiences with the matriarchs in my life and defined my own perspectives about how Black women occupied, claimed, and moved through physical space. We were both aware that the topic of matriarchy could be understood across cultures, and we hypothesized that many others would be interested in exploring it. We were proved correct by the sheer number of submissions made in response to the call for the book.
Would you mind telling readers a bit about the program at the Ernest J. Gaines Center in 2016 and how it influenced this book?
Cheylon Woods: The 2016 program we created was the first test-run for what would become the book. I had an idea of how the communities in South Louisiana engaged with ideas around women, femininity, and matriarchy, and I wanted to do something that a) celebrated Women’s History Month, and b) generated conversation around how we visualize women in this society. I also wanted to do something that would showcase student work and the interdisciplinary nature of African American Literature. At that time, I had met Kiwana a few times, and I felt like the abstract visual descriptions of physical places in African American literature was fascinating. I approached her about working with NOMAS [National Organization of Minority Architecture Students] to see what the students would identify and build as women’s spaces in fiction, and that is how “Her Space, Her Place: Influences of Black Female Narration” was designed.
Kiwana McClung: In late 2015, I was approached by Cheylon, who was brainstorming programming to be held in the Ernest J. Gaines Center for Black History and Women's History Month, in February and March of 2016. She envisioned a porch space that would serve as a backdrop for a program that celebrated women, femininity, and the people of south Louisiana. I am an advisor to the student organization NOMAS, and I recognized that the members of this organization would enjoy this unique opportunity to design something rare and conceptual. After several discussions with Cheylon, we decided to create an installation that explored how Black women claimed, occupied, and navigated physical space and objects, using excerpts chosen by Cheylon from three literary works: The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman by Ernest J. Gaines, A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry, and The Color Purple by Alice Walker. The resulting design was a 300–400 square foot installation that resembled a house, but with weird edges, strange adjacencies, and nostalgic objects that made direct reference to the excerpts from the books. The installation also had no walls, no working windows, and no roof to signify the distinct lack of protection given to the Black women in the chosen literary works. The program developed around the installation included interpretive dancers, gospel singers, writers, and poets, with the installation serving as both a dynamic background for the program and a performative storytelling space to convey the artistic narratives of the dancers, singers, writers, and poets who participated in the program. As you may imagine, the success of the program and the installation prompted some exciting discussions with Cheylon and others, which led us to pursue the book idea.
What was your collaboration process like while working on this book?
Cheylon Woods: I love doing collaborative projects. I feel like my job is to collect and disseminate knowledge, so I am always looking to work with people who have different perspectives. It felt like we worked on the book for forever, but in actuality we got through it pretty quickly. Working with so many people at once will always have challenges, but it was well worth it, and I am happy to have met the many people who contributed to the book. I am also grateful to James Wilson who was such a help when he was working for the UL Press. Although his name is not on or in the book, I don’t know how this would have come to existence if he was not willing to teach us so much about the process.
Kiwana McClung: It was an amazing collaborative process where we both brought our strengths to the table to facilitate the book's completion. Cheylon took the lead on the logistical and communication aspects of the book, sending out the call and communicating with the UL Press and the selected authors. I took on the more visual and organizational aspects of the book project, bringing Lynda Frese in for the cover art and her photo essay, and developing a preliminary outline for the editing process and an outline for the conceptual organization of the essays. Cheylon and I met weekly to read and discuss the essays. We both collaborated on the sequence of the essays in the book. We worked together to finalize the details, and we both contributed our own essays to the book as well. We had a lot of help from Devon Lord (UL Press) in the end. It was not an effortless process, with there being so many authors, but it was an incredibly interesting and engaging process because it prompted so many great discussions between Cheylon and myself about the concept of matriarchy.
How did you choose which authors and essays to include in this collection?
Cheylon Woods: We only had two major criteria for the book: that it was geographically locked to the US South, and that the abstracts were well written. Initially, we set the number of submissions to ten, but we had so many people submit good applications, neither Kiwana nor I thought it would be fair to say no. The process of reading the submissions was quite edifying because it showed that we were on to something with this idea.
Kiwana McClung: Cheylon and I read the essay submissions, then we got together to discuss each, debating their suitability for the book. There were so many good ones to choose from that we had to leave some out. We really wanted a variety of perspectives, so the lineup of essays we chose reflects the diversity of thought and experiences concerning the topic of matriarchy.
Are there any aspects of southern matriarchy that you wish were explored further in this collection?
Cheylon Woods: I was really hoping for some essays exploring more nontraditional concepts of matriarchy. When I think of matriarchs, I think of women who lead with a gentle firmness. At no point did I assume that my concept of matriarchy or my view of femininity was the rule, so I was really open to what we would receive. The only fixed rule we had was that the contributions had to relate to the geographical location of the southern United States. I think it would have been cool to even include essays criticizing the concept of southern matriarchy and challenging its influence and who can yield it.
Kiwana McClung: I wish that we had gotten more essays that explored the topic of matriarchy through the lens of different discipline areas. We had a fantastic essay that had a mathematics focus. My essay was rooted in the discipline of architecture, and Lynda’s was clearly in the art wheelhouse, but many of the essays were focused on literature or the narratives of real people. I would have loved to have some essays that explored matriarchy through music or the health sciences. Cheylon and I realized pretty quickly that the possibilities were so extensive that we could create a second book if we wanted to.
Most of these essays examine southern matriarchy through literary analysis. Why do you think exploring southern matriarchy through that lens is important?
Cheylon Woods: The literary lens provides so much space for people to think through social and socio-political concepts that have a significant impact on how we understand the world around us—especially fiction. Fiction encompasses so many different themes and intersections of life, it creates a beautifully complicated space for people to identify and interrogate many ideologies they see at play around them. Authors draft their books knowing that it will be interpreted differently by each of its readers. I feel like they build that space into the narrative. That space is why we got so many amazing contributions engaging with southern matriarchy through literary analysis—literature provides such a robust thematic canvas for scholars to build their ideas out of.
Kiwana McClung: Chinua Achebe said, "Literature, whether handed down by word of mouth or in print, gives us a second handle on reality.” I like this quote because it identifies literature as an effective method for exploring and revealing the nuances of reality. The facts stated as such do not reveal the emotions, the motivations, and the humanity behind the events, situations, and happenings of real life. Even more, literature allows for the intersection of the many distinct aspects of life, presenting them in ways that are often beyond how we experience them. In my everyday interactions with people, I only have a comprehensive understanding of my own experience, but with literature, I am invited into the experiences of many, allowing me to see and understand much more, in a more nuanced way. Those essays in the book that focused on literature did so in a way that called attention to real-life events or conditions, allowing the reader to gain contextual understanding of those events or conditions.
How do you conceptualize the term matriarch?
Cheylon Woods: Matriarch conjures ideas of strength and structure to me. A Matriarch is someone who is nurturing to those around them with the hopes of helping them become the best version of themselves. To me, a matriarch is the personification of the greater good theory, always thinking about how to ensure the well-being of those entrusted to their care. Being a matriarch is also something that requires a lot of time and dedication, and I think a number of the essays in this book do an amazing job of illustrating the complexities of this idea among marginalized communities.
Kiwana McClung: To me, the term “matriarch” can be used to describe a family, group, or community leader whose presentation and behaviors lean toward the feminine side of the gender spectrum. The understanding of who can be considered a matriarch becomes more nuanced depending upon one’s definition of “family,” their position on gender, and their positioning of femininity in the context of a patriarchal society. Certainly, there are other cultural factors that play a part in defining who can be considered a “matriarch,” but I believe they all fit within that framework.
Not only are you editors of this book, but you also both contributed a reading. How did you decide what to personally contribute?
Cheylon Woods: During my tenure as the head and archivist of the Ernest J. Gaines Center, I had the privilege of spending a lot of time with Dr. Gaines and his family. I got to listen to stories he would tell about his childhood, his aunt, and his community. Part of my job was to also write about Gaines’s work, so I started reading more essays and articles written about him. I noticed that there were many about how his Aunt Augusteen was a muse to him, but I didn’t feel like they captured who she was the way our conversations did. Augusteen was important to Dr. Gaines, just as, and sometimes more important than his novels. She lived a full life that included rearing an internationally renowned author. They had memories of her, not as a muse for literature, but as their aunt, as the woman who took care of them, as a member of Cherie Quarters. I wanted to share that. I wanted people to feel the love Dr. Gaines and his siblings had for her beyond his body of work. For me, if I was going to contribute anything at all, it could only be that story, which wasn’t mine to tell. So, that is why I chose to contribute an ethnographic interview of Dr. Gaines’s memories of Augusteen, and his brother (Norbert Colar) and his sister’s (Lois Smith) memories of Augusteen and “Mama Zuma.” These women were matriarchs of their families, and they deserved to be celebrated.
Kiwana McClung: My contribution was quite easy to decide upon; I simply wrote about the H.E.R. House installation project and the underlying themes revealed through its conception, design, and construction. I also wanted my essay to shed light on the shared experience of Black women in the built environment and architectural space, an aspect that is rarely explored. This aspect of my essay was important for me to address because it is the common thread in all three of the literary works in which excerpts were pulled to facilitate the design of the installation. I speak a lot on the concept intersectionality in my essay, to make clear to the reader the ways in which the identities of Black women intersect and call on them to be flexible in their engagement of the built environment. In addition, I provided personal anecdotes outlining how a specific matriarch in my life navigated the unique conditions forged by her collective identity in the built environment. Finally, I wanted to make clear that the installation was also a learning opportunity, where architecture and design students can engage in projects that call for them to consider and address the needs of a marginalized population. I think this is likely the most important part of my essay, because it outlines how a group of students who are marginalized in the design professions, through the installation project, gained the skills necessary for success while simultaneously designing for and highlighting a marginalized group in the built environment.
What do you hope readers take away from your book?
Cheylon Woods: I hope this book encourages people to consider how they think about the role of matriarchs and the impact of southern-ness. I don’t expect people to clearly say, “Yup, they got it right!” because there may be those who disagree with our essays. That is okay. I want this book to generate conversation and exploration into what the words “southern” and “matriarch” mean in their lives.
Kiwana McClung: I hope that people not only gain an appreciation for matriarchs and the incredible role they play in society, but also an awareness of the social and cultural nuances of the concept of matriarchy. There is no neat box or definition for what a matriarch is or who can be one. Also, we must begin to explore how our society is changing in our acceptance of women leaders and the role that matriarchy has played in this shift. We have always had matriarchs, and many influential ones can be identified throughout history, but now we have women who run Fortune 500 companies and lead organizations in many sectors of our society. I believe these women leaders bring some of the same qualities to their positions as the matriarchs of the past: protectiveness, empathy, and a desire to ensure the survival of the company/organization/family.
Are you working on any new projects that you would like readers to know about?
Cheylon Woods: I am always working on new projects through the Ernest J. Gaines Center. The easiest way to keep up with what we are doing is to follow us on social media, join our newsletter (email firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject “I would like the Ernest J. Gaines Center newsletter”) and check the website periodically. The biggest project is the Open Resource page on the center’s website, where people can watch recordings of past programs and read our original blog series. Personally, I am working on my PhD in Folklore, and that is a really exciting experience.
Kiwana McClung: I recently stepped into the role as Interim Chief Diversity Officer at UL Lafayette. In this role, I am primarily engaged in promoting and facilitating diversity, equity, and inclusion issues at the university level. I have however, for a few years, been involved in research of the Louisiana listings from the Negro Motorists Green Book. I believe that these travel guides are the most comprehensive record of the movements of Black and brown people during the Jim Crow Era, a period in our history that was perilous for anyone who was non-white. I am hoping to bring the places and narratives surrounding these spaces to life in virtual environments that could serve as tools for teaching and understanding this time in our history.