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Sojourner Truth Lecturer Marilyn Mobley speaks of interconnectedness, collaborative approaches

February 21, 2020   /   by Colleen Kearney Rich

Marilyn Mobley was close friends with Toni Morrison, so it was particularly fitting for her to give the Sojourner Truth Lecture at George Mason University on Feb. 18, which would have been Morrison’s 89th birthday.

Mobley, a Toni Morrison scholar and former president of the Toni Morrison Society, was close to the late Nobel Prize-winning author and told the audience in Harris Theater that each year she would send Morrison orchids and call her on her birthday. Mobley said that although she is still grieving the loss of her friend, she took solace in the fact that Morrison “was now dancing with the ancestors.”

Mobley, who spoke on the topic “An Intersectional Mixtape: Lessons Learned from a Black Woman Scholar in the Academy,” helped found the African and African American Studies Program at Mason in 1991 and was its first director. Mobley is currently a professor of English at Case Western Reserve University, where she served as the first vice president for inclusion, diversity and equal opportunity until 2018.

To mark the 20th anniversary of the Sojourner Truth Lecture,  Mason’s Women and Gender Studies (WGST)  and the African and African American Studies (AAAS) programs, the event organizers, invited Mobley to present as one of the program’s “foremothers.”

Morrison was one of the four women Mobley discussed in her “mixtape” about her life in higher education. The others were Truth, lawyer and civil rights advocate Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw and musician Beyoncé.

“The four women I'm talking about today not only represent ways of being knowledgeable and better educated,” said Mobley in her talk, “they also represent ways to think about how you show up in your life once you get your education, once you understand what is at stake for you and for others.”

She continued, “Although Western models of education have enticed many of us to think in terms of rugged individualism, which I like to call ‘me, myself and I-ism,’ the truth is that genuine progress has always come from collaborative models of learning, labor and resistance and from an understanding that our lives are interconnected.”

This year also marks the 30th anniversary of the creation of Women and Gender Studies Program. One of the goals for the event was to recognize the “founding mothers” of the program, said Angela J. Hattery, director of the Women and Gender Studies Program. She invited attendees Mason Vice President for University Life Rose Pascarell and Debra Bergoffen, Professor Emerita of Philosophy, to join her and Mobley on the stage. Other founders who were not able attend but were recognized by Hattery were emerita faculty Paula Ruth Gilbert, Anita Taylor and Karen Rosenblum.

“This is pretty remarkable and something we really need to be proud of,” said Hattery of the legacy of building these programs. “We are standing on the shoulders of giants, and you are those giants.”

Several years ago, Hattery and School of Integrative Studies professor Wendi Manuel-Scott expanded the event to honor local community organizations that are doing work that is in the spirit of Sojourner Truth. This year, they recognized the Virginia-based Women Orthopaedist Global Outreach, which works to transform lives in under-served global communities. Orthopaedic surgeons Robyn Hakanson, MD, and Rinelda Horton, MD, were in attendance to represent the group.