by Sharon H. Chang
Georgia Stewart McDade has a mind bigger than the world and yet she is so easy to be around. Warm, friendly, full of smiles and stories, she’s irresistibly energetic and far younger than her years. Don’t be fooled though – cause she’s fierce as anything too. She is a Black woman who grew up in the segregated south, trail-blazed her entire life and doesn’t plan on slowing down any time soon. Georgia is the first African American woman to earn a Ph. D. in English from the University of Washington. In addition to being a college educator for three decades she is a prolific poet and writer, has published three books, once traveled the world in six months, and is headed to Malawi for the first time where she will lecture at two universities. Oh. And she just turned 70.
Georgia was born in 1945 in Louisiana, the middle of eight children. Not the oldest, not the youngest, she laughingly says she started writing because nobody would listen. “You know I’d write when I got upset or I couldn’t get to my mom cause somebody else was there,” she recalled. “I’d just go in a room or under a tree and just write . . . I just loved telling stories.” She grew up in a shotgun house in Monroe during Jim Crow. “Of course it was segregated,” she said. “We were poor. My mom used to cook three slices of bacon for five children. I didn’t have a whole slice of bacon until I went to college.” Georgia’s mother was a maid who earned $3.50 a day. Georgia’s father was a laborer who couldn’t always find work. But Georgia won’t spend too much time on any of this because, she explains, being poor did not define her.
“I don’t remember thinking ‘Oh I’m poor’ you know?” she elaborates. “And luckily I was in a situation where my theory was that it wouldn’t always be that way.” Instead she reminisces tenderly about walking with her mother to church, her father driving her to school every day, her oldest brother being the only person who could trick her every April Fool’s, and how everyone knew everyone else in Monroe. “Many of us were in the same school first through twelfth grade. Most of us grew up in the same house. We were there all of our lives. So we knew everybody in the neighborhood.” She tells me to look up the poem “Nikki-Rosa” (1968) by Nikki Giovanni:
. . . they never understand
Black love is Black wealth and they’ll
probably talk about my hard childhood
and never understand that
all the while I was quite happy.
Still the stark reality of living in a racist anti-Black society ever intruded. “I was eleven when I really learned about segregation,” she says. The first day of seventh grade she proudly donned a green dress, boarded the bus, and plopped herself down in a front seat. An old Black woman in the back said, “Get up child you can’t sit there.” Georgia turned to her mother, “Why can’t I sit up there Madea?” But her mother didn’t answer. After getting off the bus Georgia asked again, “Madea, why couldn’t I sit at the front?” Her mother still didn’t answer. Georgia doesn’t remember that school day but she recollects running straight to her mother after school insisting, “Madea, why couldn’t I sit on that seat??” And finally her mother, face cloudy, answered, “Colored people can’t sit in the front.”
The world did not operate better because races
But generations paid and pay horrendous prices
because races were separate.
– George McDade, “The Nastiest Word”
With a determinedness that would become the theme of her life, young Georgia resolved firmly, “Well. I just won’t ride the bus!” (she did not ride the bus again until college). She went on to excel in primary and then secondary school. As a high school freshman she was selected to take part in an honors program and colloquium every week. As a high school senior she was one of 42 students from nine states selected to participate in the first Black student National Science Foundation program at Grambling College. “They said we were high ability students,” she recalls, “We took Biology, Chemistry, Physics and Math and [went] on field trips.” Georgia graduated valedictorian of her class. She applied to eight colleges and universities and was accepted to all of them.
Some of Georgia’s high school teachers thought she might be successful as the first African American student to integrate Northeast Louisiana State University in Monroe (now University of Louisiana). Georgia set out to visit, “I was all excited.” Her excitement was quickly squelched. Upon arriving she asked to see the dorms and a white woman working at the college coldly replied, “They told us we have to go to school with you. They never said we have to live with you.” Georgia shakes her head with the memory. “We really thought that when the court said desegregate – you had to desegregate. Now we know better.” But just like the determined little Black girl who had self-boycotted the bus at eleven years old, Georgia forged ahead again undaunted. “I thought, ‘Well. I’m not going if I can’t live on campus!’” she relays with a gleam in her eye. Instead Georgia studied English at Southern University in Baton Rouge, a historically Black university, where she had been offered a scholarship. After she earned her Bachelor of Arts in 1967 she went on to graduate school at Atlanta University – also a historically Black university – where again she was offered a scholarship. She earned her Master of Arts in 1971.
The first person to suggest she study English in college was appropriately a high school English teacher. But as a young student Georgia resisted. Certainly she had always loved reading and telling stories but to her, English was not literature. English meant diagramming sentences and parts of speech and she was convinced most people knew all the English they needed by the time they were in sixth grade. It wasn’t until a world literature class her second year at Southern that a realization came to her. “I thought if this is English – I want in,” Georgia beams. “I loved the university cause it had all of these courses.”
Full of drive and ambition, Georgia was then accepted to the Ph.D. program at the University of Washington (UW). However unlike her experiences at Southern and Atlanta University which she mostly relays as positive, she has mixed feelings about her experience at UW which was predominantly white. She describes it as a “hard time”. For instance, Georgia finished her coursework in reasonable time but tried to write her dissertation on Shakespeare for two years before someone finally thought to tell her she couldn’t because too many scholars had already done so. Georgia headed to the offices of three different white English professors. “And all three of them said, ‘Are you going to do [James] Baldwin or [Richard] Wright?’ All three.” Georgia remembered reflecting, “That’s really odd. You would think they’d know more writers.”
“You know you can stop,” the English Department Chair advised her. “You don’t have to go any further and you’ve still gone farther than anybody else has ever gone.” But Georgia had never stopped nor did she intend to stop now. At last she sought out the only Black faculty she remembers in the English department, an African American woman, who told her to write on Jessie Fauset. “I never heard of Jessie Fauset,’” Georgia countered. The professor countered back, “That’s why you do Jessie Fauset.” Jessie Fauset was a Black woman author, editor, poet, educator and journalist who penned multiple poems, essays, four novels and was hired by W.E.B. Du Bois in 1919 to be the literary editor of his magazine The Crisis. Georgia wrote a 260-page dissertation entitled, “From Hopeful to Hopeless: Three Novels of Jessie Fauset.”
She earned her Ph. D. in 1987.
Mid-dissertation Georgia had heard that Tacoma Community College (TCC) was looking for an English teacher. “I never thought of myself as a writer, I just wrote,” she says, “But I always wanted to teach.” In fact it was way back in Monroe as a resolute little girl that Georgia set that definitive goal and (in typical Georgia style) never once changed her mind. “I must’ve been about five or six [years old] when I decided I wanted to teach,” she smiles. “Every year I wanted to teach the grade I was in.” Finally she decided she wanted to teach college. A high school counselor objected, “There’s no college where you can teach!” But, Georgia says, “I knew enough…and just sort of ignored him.” That gleam has crept back into her eyes.
I don’t tackle all obstacles.
I do not believe in wasting energy.
Some obstacles I leave alone.
Other obstacles I go around.
Some obstacles I stare down.
– Georgia McDade, “Obstacles”
She applied for the position and got the job. Though, of course, racism kept encroaching. “There were people at TCC who wouldn’t take my class because I’m Black,” she said. Clearly higher education and Seattle were no more immune to anti-Blackness than her native Deep South. When she first came to Seattle, Georgia says, she rode the bus downtown, saw Black men with white women. “I never saw that in Monroe and I just wanted to bring everybody from Monroe, Louisiana, to Seattle.” But after she had been out here about a month, Georgia laughs, she wanted to take everyone from Seattle back to Monroe. “People here [in the Northwest] will tell you in a minute that there’s no racism; there’s no prejudice,” she remarks, but that perception is dangerously false.
But plainly racism was nothing new and had been a constant through the prose of her life. Despite the discrimination Georgia loved her teaching position and stayed committed at Tacoma Community College for three decades while continuing to live in Seattle. “I had students who said I shouldn’t be teaching in Seattle. I should go back and help people in the south,” Georgia notes. “I always said there are a lot of people in the south who can help people in the south. It’s the people out here [who need help].” And true to her word (aside from the time she traveled thirty-two countries in six months) she’s been here ever since.
Today Georgia still lives in her South Seattle home with her brother and sister. A co-founder and charter member of the African American Writers’ Alliance (AAWA), Georgia began reading her writings in public in 1991. Her works include Travel Tips for Dream Trips, questions and answers about her six-month, solo trip around the world; Outside the Cave and Outside the Cave II, collections of poetry; and numerous essays, stories, and other poems. She just held a huge 70th birthday party in which she divided her life into acts. The first act was Monroe where she was born. The second act was Southern University in Baton Rouge 189 miles away where she went to college. The third act was Seattle, Tacoma. “The fourth act,” she clasps her hands, “was the world where I put all of my travels. And the fifth act? Is now . . . ”
I am the narrator
– Georgia McDade, “My Poems”
Sharon H Chang has worked with young children and families for over a decade as a teacher, administrator, advocate and parent educator. She is currently a writer, scholar and activist who focuses on racism, social justice and the Asian American diaspora with a feminist lens. Her pieces have appeared in BuzzFeed, ThinkProgress, Hyphen Magazine ParentMap Magazine, The Seattle Globalist, AAPI Voices and International Examiner. She also serves as a consultant for Families of Color Seattle and is on the planning committee for the Critical Mixed Race Studies Conference.