Interview by Hannah Weisman
As my conversation with Desiree Taylor came to a close in a cozy JP Licks on a chilly January evening, Desiree shared her primary goal and motivation for her work as an educator: “Ultimately, the goal is LOVE.” And after spending the evening together, I can attest that there is no other message you can take from getting to know Desiree and her work.
Desiree is an independent educator in Greater Boston and works specifically with adult audiences through programs at libraries, community centers, retirement communities, and other cultural organizations. She frames history through story, focusing on telling American history through the African American experience. Her scintillating intellect, warm personality, and willingness to discuss uncomfortable topics candidly create an environment conducive to learning and contending with new or challenging ideas.
Q: When and where were you born and raised?
DESIREE TAYLOR: I was born and raised in Dallas, Texas, in 1972—just five years after the Supreme Court ruled against anti-miscegenation laws in the Loving v. Virginia case. Growing up, I didn’t know a thing about this case. But once I studied history in college, a lot of what I went through growing up made sense. The fact that just five years before half-black half-white me came into the world, police officers arrested a couple for breaking racial integrity laws says a lot about the period in which I was born. As a biracial child I represented wrong thinking to a lot of people. Growing up where and when I did, as who and what I am, meant it was impossible to go through life unencumbered by questions of race and how it affects society.
Q: What has shaped your work as an independent educator?
DT: So many things have contributed to my thoughts about education. Challenging social thoughts about race and what that has meant for my personhood has meant that, from a young age, I was practiced in questioning authority and was hesitant in accepting prevailing ideas at face value.
I completed an independently designed undergraduate major in religion, gender, and the arts at UMass Boston. The major was rooted in the question, “What are three things that impact everybody’s life?” The school was highly diverse by every possible standard, from educational background and social economic status, to gender identification and racial makeup. I loved it. That independence and diverse environment led me to earn both a master of education in curriculum and instruction and a master of arts in American studies at UMass Boston.
As far as socioeconomic background, I was born poor and then as I was growing up, things went downhill! It might sound odd, but I’m quite proud of my economic background. I’m not proud that I went through it—I think poverty is an injustice and a crime against humanity—but what I’m proud of is the strength of the human spirit I witnessed.
People in all parts of society need places to come together to talk and think. I’ve participated in a lot of great conversations among marginal populations, but unlike folks who get to write their thoughts down and have them preserved, read, respected, and talked about, when the sun comes up these conversations from the margins are gone like Cinderella’s pumpkin carriage. It’s disempowering when one’s thoughts are fairy-tale like, never affecting the real world in concrete ways.
So that is one of my focuses as a scholar and storyteller: I research issues, people, and social events and then break them down into stories that are about us, real people in the real world. And these stories are just as wild—wilder even—than made-up ones. And I love offering these programs to organizations where an entire community has a chance to come together and participate, so everyone can hear and add their voice and experience to these stories. And the community can reflect on how the issues affect individuals and diverse groups. And then change can happen, has a way to happen, if need be.
Q: Your work explores American history and culture specifically through the lens of African American history. Why is this approach important?
DT: I focus on the African American experience, but present it as the history of all of us. We sometimes get alienated from certain histories because they’re not “ours.” My approach is not just, “let’s look at African American history in the US,” but instead, “let’s look at history in the US using an African American lens.” It makes history personal.
And the African American lens is a good one to use to see the beginnings of a people called “Americans,” because the African American story includes one of the first experiences on US land where a population undergoes a sharp severance from what came before, and is required to start over without the aid of former customs, foods, beliefs, lifestyles, etc. And along with that severance comes a denigration of those things. Yet in that story there is the persistent struggle to assert and reintegrate what is diverse, unique, and worthy about that severed history back into not only the African American story, but into the larger American cultural story as a whole. This is something of a universal US-American struggle and quest. The putting up and knocking down of barriers to connecting past and present can be very well examined in the African American experience.
Q: What are the challenges to your approach to interpreting history?
DT: A major challenge I face with my work is time. How do I tell a story and make it personal in 60 minutes? I have seen keen eyes glass over above an hour. An hour is about the limit for programs where people are presented a subject that piques their interest, but they aren’t required to attend. I love to include the actual words of people from history when I can. So there’s a lot to fit into a little time.
Q: Every educator has a story about a situation they hadn’t anticipated. What’s your favorite moment of surprise?
DT: I’ll never forget a particular program participant in a community day program for seniors who seemed not to be engaged. I didn’t know this individual, so I had no way of knowing that he was hanging onto all parts of the conversation with a lot of interest. His physical disability masked his engagement. It goes to show you can never really judge what another person is getting out of your teaching or the art of your presentation.
By grace you sometimes find out, like I did on this occasion, that someone is taking something they can use from your teaching. And that’s what you hope for—because in the end, I do what I do to increase love in the world. Our societies can be cold and alienating places. Understanding is a major component to love. And if my work can help people understand themselves and our world on a deeper, richer level, then that’s all good.
You can find Desiree Taylor’s website here.