Dr. Zandria Robinson is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Memphis. She tells the truth fearlessly, whether she’s talking about her personal life, serious social and political issues, or taking a violin bow to the head of a terrible former Sunday School teacher (as a classically trained violinist, I believe this would be done with outstanding technique). She was the first person I visited for the #IRLProject.
The houses on the street are two and three stories; huge picture windows and gracious front porches. I walk up the steps and ring the bell and hear talking coming from inside the house. I am nervous in a way I never have been before. No, it’s not nerves—it’s discomfort, something I will not realize until the next day. I’m in over my head and every fiber of my being knows it.
The door opens and Zandria Robinson smiles at me and without thinking we hug each other and while she may be hugging me because she is kind or hospitable, I realize as I embrace her, that I am holding on for dear life because I am completely terrified. The #IRLProject has begun.
She is barefoot and wearing a dress, with a scarf pulled up over her hair a bit and the effect is an easy grace. She is tiny. The next day when we are in her office and I see a poster for a speaking engagement with the same photo that is her Twitter avatar, I say to her, “You read taller on social media.” We agree that this is probably because of her big personality, which, unlike her height is exactly the same in person as it is on Twitter.
We agree that this is probably because of her big personality, which, unlike her height is exactly the same in person as it is on Twitter.
She introduces me to her boyfriend, Tauheed, whom I “know” from Twitter, as Zandria is one of the few professionals I follow who shares her personal as well as professional life. We shake hands and then I meet his friend Kenny. They’re playing something that looks like Madden, maybe NCAA football, and I share that this is a favorite activity of my three sons, a way for them to both hang out and keep in touch, even when they are in three cities, thanks to the online nature of gaming. We leave them and continue on a tour of the house.
Zandria and Tauheed got home the night before from a weeklong sociology conference in Charlotte, North Carolina. It’s a ten-hour drive and I had offered to postpone our visit and just attend her classes, knowing I would be back over the next couple of months to see my son who attends college in Mississippi. But she texted me that afternoon, “Hi Kate. I’m exhausted but okay. Maybe we could meet later this evening? Assata gets out of dance class at 6. Some time after that would be good.”
Assata is Zandria’s 11-year-old daughter and I meet her on the house tour Zandria gives me.
Let me just say that again because it is important in all kinds of ways. A woman who has driven ten hours the day before, returning from a conference for which she was a planner, requiring a week away from her daughter, opened her home to a stranger from the Internet and then gave said stranger a tour of said home. I feel the grip of my terror loosen slightly, because it’s not just a tour of the house, it’s also a tour of their life.
Let me just say that again because it is important in all kinds of ways.
A woman who has driven ten hours the day before, returning from a conference for which she was a planner, requiring a week away from her daughter, opened her home to a stranger from the Internet and then gave said stranger a tour of said home.
I see pictures of family members and hear their stories, see Assata’s art and Zandria’s five-step “How to Tackle Cleaning Your Room” poster. Assata has dreads and even though she is sitting on her bed, I can tell she is probably almost as tall as Zandria. I worry that she will feel uncomfortable, but when she smiles there is nothing withheld. She is quiet, but not shy and engaging in a way that makes me wish I could hang out with her for a few hours just the two of us.
Zandria takes me from room to room, family stories mixing with architecture, the paint colors in baby Jordan’s room, chosen from a favorite Picasso print, the tiny room that will become Tauheed’s recording studio, the guest room where, hand to God, she says to me, “Do you need a place to stay? I would need to change the sheets because my girlfriend has been here taking care of Assata, but you can stay here.” (I have a place, I tell her, and consider again the extraordinary nature of this woman).
We make our way downstairs to the kitchen and I see a Vitamix blender, universal symbol of serious smoothie makers, so we talk recipes for a minute. I see the dining room with the servant’s buzzer embedded in the floor, which reminds me that I am hungry and I imagine they are too. I call in our order to Soul Fish Café and when I pick it up, the young woman who rings me up is wearing a Kansas City Royals hat. She tells me she used to live in Kansas City and went to so many Royals games when they were terrible and she can’t believe they are in the World Series now that she moved away. This feels like a good omen. I take her picture and get her name—Mallory—before heading back with our order, plus a piece of coconut cake.
Tauheed and Kenny and Assata join us for dinner. My shrimp tacos and sweet potato fries are incredible and I open the box with coconut cake and definitely have more bites than anyone else. One of the things I love about Zandria is that she pulls no punches, but she will also make space for questions or hard conversations. I tell them about how Twitter has been a classroom for me, especially with regard to racial issues, that with all the hard conversations about race that we need to have in this country, it feels like a space where I really can listen and learn.
At this Kenny mentions that he does a lot of reading about physics (he is out of college, so I understand that he does this for fun) and tells me that there are theorists who posit that the Internet is a parallel universe and social media the bridge that connects us to it. Because I never do any reading about physics, I have not heard this theory, but it is fascinating to me. Kenny is a music producer and visual artist and Tauheed is a hip-hop artist. Both are social activists and very involved in their community and as we talk and laugh, particularly about Tauheed’s hilarious trolling of another musician in the community, I realize that I am on holy ground.
I make arrangements with Zandria to meet her the next morning at the University of Memphis where she is an assistant professor of sociology, hug everyone and holler a goodbye up the stairs at Assata who responds in kind. I walk out to my car and realize I am relaxed for the first time in weeks.
I am running late the next morning and text Zandria to let her know. I am always running late, this is a character flaw of mine, so when she texts back that she too is running late, I am so happy I could cry. We park and hustle to her office, me in a Kansas City t-shirt and her in a black and gold dress, in which she looks gorgeous. She’s wearing flats for the hustle, but carrying black heels that will make us slightly less of an odd couple when walking into her classroom. I slide into a seat at the back and she launches the undergraduate “Sociology and Culture” class with a summary of the previous class and a discussion of Oprah as cultural phenomenon. I want to raise my hand a dozen times, but resist. When it ends we walk back up the stairs to her office and she says, “How about lunch? My treat.”
…she launches the undergraduate “Sociology and Culture” class with a summary of the previous class and a discussion of Oprah as cultural phenomenon. I want to raise my hand a dozen times, but resist.
We head back out in the drizzle to her Mini Cooper and she apologizes for the “mess” which is hilarious to me since my Pontiac Vibe most closely resembles the car of a wandering hoarder. The Elegant Farmer, a farm to table restaurant is about five minutes away. The hostess and servers greet her like family and we are seated quickly. We both order the tomato basil soup, which has a bit of kick to it, and I eat my salad and homemade dinner roll so fast that I feel just slightly sheepish about it. I ask a lot of questions, some very personal, and Zandria answers them all. She talks about her parents, her work, Assata’s father’s suicide, what it was like to be a single parent with a baby while getting a PhD at Northwestern University and simultaneously teaching classes. I was in awe of her before we met. That hasn’t changed, but oh god she is at the same time so human, that I feel like weeping.
I was in awe of her before we met. That hasn’t changed, but oh god she is at the same time so human, that I feel like weeping.
She pays the bill and instead of feeling like I should fight her for it, I just say thank you. This is a lesson I am learning and it painful at times, but made easier by people like Zandria who does not seem phased by my imposition; by the fact that a middle aged white woman old enough to be her mother, has taken the better part of the past 24 hours. We head back to campus for her graduate seminar and I’m thrilled when I see the grad students assembling around a table. She asks me to introduce myself and explain my project and the next three hours are filled with conversation about race, gender, sexuality, families, heteronormativity (a word Zandria had explained to me earlier that day). She lets the students talk, asking questions, pushing the conversation when necessary, and ends with going around the table and hearing about the plans and processes for their big projects. At the end I ask if they will gather for a photo. I forgot to take one the night before (it will not be the first time) and I want to remember their faces—the glimpses I got of each, tempting me to an endless series of interviews.
She lets the students talk, asking questions, pushing the conversation when necessary, and ends with going around the table and hearing about the plans and processes for their big projects.
I exchange contact information with Brittany whose project is about the impact of food deserts on single mothers. My friends in Kansas City, Kris and JD are both passionate about feeding people and it feels like they should talk to each other. Zandria and I go back to her office, collect our things and walk out to our cars. It has stopped raining. As our time together is about to end, I realize how many things I haven’t asked—how much of a “first” this encounter has been, what a total rookie I am and how I still am not exactly sure what this project is or will be. But there is one question I have wanted to ask and I remember it now: Does she ever get tired of the struggle–the inequalities, the battle she seems ever willing to fight on behalf of the excluded and marginalized?
“Oh yeah,” she responds, “That’s when I watch Netflix.”
Does she ever get tired of the struggle–the inequalities, the battle she seems ever willing to fight on behalf of the excluded and marginalized? ‘Oh yeah,’ she responds, ‘That’s when I watch Netflix.’
She stashes her bags in the Mini and then walks with me to my car. The night before I shared some of my deepest sorrows and secrets, so I feel none of the shame I can sometimes conjure over how much of a shitshow this car appears to be. We talk briefly about where I’m going, about keeping in touch regarding the project. I tell her I will be back and she says, “You should. You can stay with us then. I’ll have clean sheets on that bed.”
When I had the first glimmer of the #IRLProject, I reached out to two people for advice. Zandria was one of them. The following email, dated July 6, is the response I received from her. If you have ever done something by yourself, for which there are no instructions, and for which you feel completely unqualified, you will understand what it means to get an email like the one below.
I am alllllllll about this project. I love it. You should go ahead and figure out a web domain for the project and lock it down.
Even without the back-story, your life and experiences sound like a memoir I’d read. Some documentary video, some interviews, some time in places with people IRL exploring the places from which they tweet and thinking about your own life? Yes.
Let’s rap more, but yes to all of this.
She smiles that huge and amazing smile of hers and gives me a hug and I hold on awhile because I am tearful and afraid again, as I leave what is now familiar, hit the Google maps app, and head for the highway.