There are places that evoke immediate connotations for us, and Tuskegee, Alabama is one of those places. Whether those connotations relate to the now-mythic educator Booker T. Washington, to the landmark voting rights case Gomillion v. Lightfoot, or to the now-infamous Syphilis Study, this small town’s name carries with it multiple narratives about justice for African Americans. Here, professor Rhonda Collier examines the role of Tuskegee in her life, in her family, and in the wider world.
Home Sweet Home: The Blood that Binds Us
by Rhonda Collier
From Whence We Came
Lionel Richie, a classmate of my mother at Tuskegee Institute, notes on the cover of his 2012 country music CD Tuskegee: “Every soul has a birth place, every dream starts somewhere. My life, my adventures, my destiny, my music and the truth of who I am all started in this place called . . . TUSKEGEE.” My mother, Gwendolyn Slayton Collier, was born in Tuskegee, but raised in nearby Notasulga. She attended Chehaw Elementary School, one of six “Schools for Negroes” built in Macon County by Booker T. Washington with the collaboration of philanthropist Julius Rosenwald. The schools were built by Tuskegee Institute architecture students with bricks that were also made by students.
I was conceived in Tuskegee, minutes away from the campus, though I was born at Chanute Air Force Base in Rantoul, Illinois, so I am a fourth generation Tuskegeean. My father was a career Air Force officer from Tennessee who retired after twenty-two years of service. Though I am military brat, Tuskegee has always been one of the anchors in my life.
Tennessee, my father’s home state, was another. An extremely patriotic man, my father made sure we knew that Tennessee, the Volunteer State, sent the most troops abroad during US wars. Somehow, my parents made sure during those summers that we were not living abroad, my two brothers and I spent time down South with our grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins.
In spite of those amazing summers down South, I never felt I had a permanent home.
Where is Home?
Home was a place I had to imagine because physically, it was constantly influx. I was what is called a “military brat,” and what today’s cultural critics call “third culture kids.” In this dynamic space that robbed me of a permanent address, but afforded me the privilege of American citizenship and status as an officer’s daughter, the constant characters of my life were my mom Gwen, my dad Ewing, two brothers Bruce and Tim, and our pets—one cat, Half Pint; and one dog, Judy. The American hero was my dad, now a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel, who then dressed the part every day; and my mom was a woman warrior, who had her BS in Sociology from Tuskegee Institute, Class of 1971. In the spirit of the Ashanti proverb, my mom held our family together through her silence and cooperation.
My mother told me, when I was a child in England at Alconbury Air Force Base, that I called all men in military uniform, black or white, “Daddy.” I think for a long time I grew up thinking that men were either “blue” or “green,” not Black or white, and that like my father all men were “superheroes” who fought in wars. All uniformed men looked the same to a three-year old little girl because of the green battle fatigues and the class “A” blue dress uniforms. Due to my sociological color-blindness, I had no idea of the racism my father faced as a Black officer or as a Black man in America. I only knew that he always told me I needed to work twice as hard as everyone else, so I did.
My Blood Runs Deep Orange
Upon the request of my father, for my undergraduate degree in engineering, I went to the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, a school he and his brothers James and Ronald, who all three served in Vietnam, were unable to attend in the 1960s. Although I experienced racism in the late 1980s and was minoritized as a Black female engineering student, I emerged with a BS in Industrial Engineering understanding two truths besides the principles of engineering: 1) my blood was deep orange and 2) “Rocky Top” would always be “home sweet home to me.” The song “Rocky Top” emerged as the school fight song in 1972 and represents nostalgia for a simpler and better time of moonshine and easier women. It is a country and bluegrass song. The chorus, which is wildly shouted at UT football games, follows:
Rocky Top, you’ll always be
Home sweet home to me
Good ol’ Rocky Top
Rocky Top, Tennessee
Rocky Top, Tennessee
So I became divided between “Sweet Home Alabama” and the idea that “Rocky Top” would “always be home sweet home to me.” I still wanted to call Tennessee home, in spite of the fact that I was called “nigger” my first semester of school in 1987. What simpler times was the fight song calling for? Definitely not, sweeter or simpler for Black Americans. The other truth, “My blood runs deep orange,” can be seen on t-shirts, bumper stickers or heard casually among Tennessee fans. This light phrase is meant to show school spirit and commitment to the Big Orange, which along with the color white is the school’s color. However, as I look back, it seems strange that the school spirit would insist on a change of “blood” color as a sign of loyalty or homogeneous identity as Tennessee Volunteers.
What is Bad Blood?
Years later, ironically, the phrase “my blood runs deep orange” would trigger images of the US Public Health Study of Untreated Syphilis in Macon County, Alabama and the idea of “bad blood” and deception. In Tuskegee, my mom’s hometown, “bad blood” was a term used to describe the symptoms of syphilis to participants who unbeknownst to themselves were being going untreated for the disease, so that scientists from the US Public Health Service could track the progression of the disease.
In her groundbreaking 2013 book Examining Tuskegee, medical historian Susan Reverby observes the image of an “imagined” Tuskegee as associated with bioethics and the syphilis studies conducted from 1932 until 1972 in Macon County, Alabama. In chapter 11, she very aptly discusses the “Court of Imagination” and the dichotomy of two separate Tuskegee experiments: the Tuskegee Airmen and the United States Public Health Service Study of Untreated Syphilis on Male Negroes. She accurately relates how the two experiments are often merged in popular culture through film and theatre and general confusion of dates. However, her general argument weighs heavily on the idea that “Tuskegee” conjures medical images.
So, instead of my blood being orange, I have a legacy of people who were not informed about being subjects of research. My mother’s best friend Dorothy Daniels Mosely was indirectly affected by the study. Aunt Dorothy’s uncle Charlie W. Pollard was subject to this US Public Health Service testing in Macon County. He was the first survivor to bring a lawsuit against the US government and also receive an apology from President Clinton. Our family friend Attorney Fred D. Gray, Sr., whom I have known all my life and who gave the eulogy at my grandmother’s funeral, defended this case among other landmark cases including Rosa Parks’ and Gomillion vs. Lightfoot.
Charles Gomillion, a Civil Rights activist, was my mother’s sociology professor at Tuskegee Institute. According to my mom, Professor Gomillion told his students that, if they kept in touch with him, he would give them $1 dollar for each child that they had. This was in the 1960s, and I’m sure that each dollar was very valuable. I love my mom, but she was not a letter writer. So our family did not get three dollars for my brothers and me. My mom’s college roommate Annie Roberts got her one dollar for her daughter Katrina. Gomillion died in 1994. Luckily, we are still in touch with Mom’s roommate, Annie Roberts now of Gainesville, Florida, and Dad’s roommate Jimmy McCarty of Dothan, Alabama. In other words, I have been surrounded by Black excellence and by Tuskegee my whole life. My blood is definitely not orange, but unique, persistent, and resilient.
EU Sou Da minha mÃe
In 2012, the New York Times bestseller The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks was a commercial success. I saw a copy in Portuguese when I visited São Paulo, Brazil, where I had lived and conducted research on Afro-Brazilian female poets in 2001. In the case of Henrietta Lacks, in the name of science, her cancer cells were at one time mass produced in a Tuskegee lab. Literally, Tuskegee had followed me to Brazil, in bookstores, airports, and movie theaters. Author Rebecca Skloot attempted to honor Henrietta Lacks’ life and legacy, as well as her family, through her creative nonfiction work that enlightened many readers to the uninformed consent surrounding the research performed on Lack’s dead body. I, too, valued my Afro-Brazilian interview subjects as black mothers, like mine, and worked to gain their consent to publish their interviews and translate their Portuguese language poetry. Like Henrietta Lacks, the poets of my research study were poor, Black, and faced the cancer of racism in their home country. Many faced medical injustice and lack of access to healthcare. Like my mother and grandmother, these black Brazilian women drew from their spirituality and created sacred spaces that empowered them. The government tried to silence them, but they protested loud and clear through their mystical poetry. The poets of my study including Conceição Evaristo, Esmeralda Ribeiro, Elisa Lucinda, and Miriam Alves were black mothers striving to take care of their children in a society that did not value black female bodies. In fact, Elisa Lucinda’s famous 1998 poem “Mulata Exportação” describes the Black woman’s body as exported sugar. Similarly, the bodies of the men of the Tuskegee Syphilis study and Henrietta Lacks were consumed like sugar without their consent.
Captain America: Truth
Thinking about my own legacy of militarism, obsession with “superheroes,” and concerns about “bad blood,” I considered comics books a way to reimagine Tuskegee. The 2002 Marvel Comic series Truth: Red, White and Black, which features a seven-part Super Solider Serum with only one surviving World War II black solider Isaiah Bradley. The series is a commentary on patriotism and the place of Black Americans in the American imagination. Black people are heroes too. Heroes who have been experimented on, who have been treated less than human, but who have somehow emerged stronger than bullets. We must speak truth to power.
As I began my industrial engineering graduate education at Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech) in Atlanta, I became fascinated with health systems engineering. It seemed as if in the early 1990s Hillary Clinton’s health plan made a lot of people nervous. In contrast, I was very happy. Health systems engineers need to ensure quality control, health care management, and efficient healthcare plans. As the First Lady of the United States, of course, Hillary Rodham Clinton was criticized for being overly involved— she was too much of a Vice-President instead of a First Lady. The first rule for the First Lady is the rule my mother learned as an Air Force wife: “True power comes through cooperation and silence.” As a Tuskegee native and Tuskegee Institute graduate, my mother learned the nuances of performances. I was the opposite of my mother. I always spoke my mind, rarely listened, as mom said, as a child I used to say, “I want to be a duck.” She would correct me and say, “ You mean an adult.” I always wanted to be “grown.”
Granny says Goodbye
With the historic election of Barack Hussein Obama in 2008, like many Black Americans, I stood taller and shirked the titles of “military brat” and “citizen of the world” with the proud responses of “I am an American” and “Soy de los Estados Unidos de Las Américas.” I even donned the “God Bless Obama” pin and “Obama” hoop earrings.
Nine months and twelve days after Obama was elected, my grandmother, “Granny,” Elizabeth Hunter Slayton, died. She was 81 years old, too young, but blessed because she had stopped smoking in her late ’60s. She had been sick for years, but was ironically a “Fred Sanford” type of sick. In the 1970s sitcom Sanford and Son, you think Fred is going to die, but it’s really a joke because he never looks sick and always seems over dramatic about it. His constant refrain was “Elizabeth, I’m coming. It’s the big one.” And so it was, my Elizabeth left. It seemed like, at least for me, Granny was almost not dying for at least five years because of heart disease. Granny was not afraid of dying. In the Black vernacular, Granny was “called home.” At the time of her death, I was living in Abilene, Texas. I felt that Granny was calling me to Tuskegee, where I now teach and serve as the director of the Tuskegee University Global Office.
Granny worked at Tuskegee University for over thirty years, and she loved Tuskegee University. After sending five children to Tuskegee University, my grandmother Elizabeth Slayton and my grandfather Luther Slayton were selected as Tuskegee University Parents of the Year in 1981. My mom Gwen, aunts Orazie, Dianne, and Marie, and uncle Robert all attended what was then called Tuskegee Institute. Ultimately, my aunt, Eula Marie Slayton finished the School of Veterinary Medicine at Tuskegee Institute. The second generation includes my brother Tim and my cousin Wanda Dionne, who both finished Tuskegee University in the 1990s. Additionally, my younger cousin Elizabeth is currently attending the vet school. My granny, a medical records technician at the John Andrews Hospital, which is now John A. Kenney Hall; and receptionist at Dorothy Hall, which is now the Kellogg Center; was very proud of her children and her grandchildren.
Sweet Home Alabama
I grew up playing with my cousins Dionne, Dyjuan, Andre, Rodericus, and Niecey, and two brothers Bruce and Tim on the campus of Tuskegee Institute during the summers of the 1970s and the 1980s. We hung out at Granny’s job at Dorothy Hall: the University’s hotel where George Washington Carver had once lived. As eight kids under fifteen, our job was to stay still and not get Granny fired for having bad grandkids at work. I remember being with my cousins in the evenings at the Booker T. Washington monument thinking it was great that there was just enough room for the eight of us to sit while waiting for Granny to get off work. I also remember meeting General Daniel “Chappy” James, Jr. during the 1970s and feeling so small when shaking his hand and watching the Thunderbirds from the Robert R. Moton Airfield. I imagined my dad’s Tuskegee, as he was a graduate of the United States ROTC Detachment #15 and trained by Tuskegee Airmen.
The Tuskegee I imagined was Lionel Richie’s Tuskegee. The “Brick House” of the Commodores, and Lionel Richie’s “All Night Long” and “Dancing on the Ceiling” were the songs of my childhood. As a child of the ’70s and ’80s, the Tuskegee I imagined was musical and magical. No matter where my family traveled to or moved to, I knew Tuskegee would be there when we returned. Given this, I am still amazed at how easily I was able to interchange between the “Sweet Home Alabama” and “Rocky Top” songs to create an image of home. As the song “Sweet Home Alabama” says:
Big wheels keep on turning
Carry me home to see my kin
Singing song about the south-land
I miss Alabamy once again and I think
It’s a sin, yes
There was no doubt about it. The Southern rock band Lynyrd Skynyrd had articulated Alabama for me. It was about my kin even with the paradox of racism and the historical images of Governor Wallace proclaiming, “Segregation now. Segregation forever.” Although my people were not always welcomed, Alabama was my home in the world. In terms of Tennessee’s “Rocky Top,” it is still one of the ten most popular school fight songs in the nation. Tennessee and Alabama, the birth states of my parents, are a part of who I am. My alma mater will always be the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. It is also in my blood.
What a Feeling!
In his album Tuskegee, Lionel Richie sings country music versions of his greatest hits. He sings duets with country music stars, such as Kenny Rogers, Shania Twain, Rascal Flatts, Blake Shelton, and Kenny Chesney. Like Lionel Richie notes in his CD cover, I choose to see music as a testament to the adventures of my life. In Brazil, I enjoyed samba and bossa nova; in Cuba, salsa; in Nashville, country and gospel; in Mexico, mariachi; in Italy, opera; in New Orleans, jazz, and in the Dominican Republic, meringue, to name a few. I also enjoy global hip hop. I am at home when I embrace the diversity of the world around me. Borrowing from Lionel Richie, “what a feeling to dance on the ceiling,” and to know you are never far from home, a space we all create to remind us of who we are regardless of geographic or linguistic boundaries.
Dr. Rhonda Collier is a Professor of Modern Languages and Communication at Tuskegee University in Tuskegee, Alabama, USA, where she also serves as the Director of the TU Global Office. She holds a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from Vanderbilt University, and she is a Fulbright Scholar, who studied at the Universidad de São Paulo in Brazil. She has published in the areas of Afro-Brazilian, Afro-Cuban, African-American, and global hip hop studies. At Tuskegee University, she focuses on American literature, Black American literature, and composition courses with an emphasis on service-learning. Her most recent work Culturally Responsive Teaching and Learning in Higher Education was co-edited with Dr. Octavia Tripp and released by IG Global Publishing in August 2019. Dr. Collier is passionate about education abroad and cross-cultural student engagement.
Works Cited and Consulted
Lucinda, Elisa. O semelhante (Portuguese Edition). Record Publisher, 1998.
Lynyrd Skynyrd. “Sweet Home Alabama Lyrics.” https://www.azlyrics.com/lyrics/lynyrdskynyrd/sweethomealabama.html. Dec. 14. 2020
Morales, Robert et al. Captain America: Truth. Marvel Publisher, 2009.
Osborne Brothers. “Rocky Top.” http://www.songlyrics.com/osborne-brothers/rocky-top lyrics/#:~:text=Wish%20that%20I%20was%20on%20ol%27%20Rocky%20Top.,dream%20about%20that.%20Rocky%20top%2C%20you%27ll%20always%20be. Dec. 14, 2020.
Reverby, Susan M. Examining Tuskegee: The Infamous Syphilis Study and Its Legacy. University of North Carolina Press, 2013.
Richie, Lionel. Tuskegee. C.D. Mercury Records, 2012.
Skloot, Rebecca. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. Broadway Books, 2010.
Author, Closed Ranks | Editor, Children of the Changing South | Creative Writing Teacher www.fosterdickson.com and leveldeepsouth.com