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Berea’s “Tall” Women at the Intersection of Everybody

Berea’s “Tall” Women at the Intersection of Everybody

By Lyle D. Roelofs, Berea College President

For Women’s History Month, the problem wasn’t finding an important Berea College woman to talk about in my column. It was deciding how many women to talk about and even what was meant by the term “woman.” It might seem simple, but it’s actually very complicated. The conclusion, though, echoes the late bell hooks, whose long shadow is cast over an institute, a center and a street on Berea’s campus bearing her name, when she said: Feminism is for everybody.

But let’s start with Wilma Dykeman, the first woman to serve as a Berea College trustee. A writer from Asheville, North Carolina, Dykeman’s web of connection to Berea is wide and includes poet Robert Frost and author Alex Haley, as well as a Berea College president and a teaching career here. Though her early career touched on racial issues, her most famous work is a novel called “The Tall Woman,” a literary portrait of influential but unknown women from Appalachia. The title borrows from a mountain saying: A tall woman casts a long shadow. Ironically, Dykeman dedicated the book to her “diminutive” mother, the tallest woman she knew.

Her overall goal was to fight Appalachian stereotypes and express something distinctly human that transcended notions of gender and place. In short, “The Tall Woman” was a book about everyone, which is why Berea College’s Sixth Great Commitment is important for everybody: “To create a democratic community dedicated to education and gender equality.”

This is a good place to bring hooks into the conversation, a monumental force in thinking about this topic and whose body of work leads somewhere similar. hooks' chief criticism was that popular feminism did not include ideas about the intersections of race, class and womanhood. As a result, the scholarship only reflected middle- and upper-class white ideas about it and excluded Black women from even the very definition of “woman.” Echoing Sojourner Truth before her, hooks urged readers to think beyond binary terms like black and white, male and female and broaden their ideas to be more inclusive. Each person is a multitude of identities intersecting within one being, and understanding that can lead society to an attitude of love and justice for everyone.

We work very intentionally at Berea College to understand these issues better. As always, we look to the inclusive truth of our scriptural motto: God has made of one blood all peoples of the earth (Acts 17:26).

In between the works of Dykeman and hooks is a college whose past and present is teeming with tall women who have had important roles here the South’s first interracial and coeducational college. The banners of Notable Bereans on campus pay homage to many of these women.  And it is certainly worth noting that in electing Dr. Cheryl Nixon as its tenth president, Berea College has invited another notable woman to write the next chapter of its story.

In closing, I want to introduce another “tall woman,” who came out of retirement just to help with this story. Like one of Dykeman’s characters, Sharyn Mitchell ’69 is not famous but was very influential in her role supporting the Berea College Special Collections and Archives in Hutchins Library. Decades behind the scenes, Mitchell kept and protected the full story of Berea. Even in retirement, she maintains a detailed list of Berea’s female and multiracial firsts. Her personal genealogical research links her back to Berea’s beginnings, to Black and white ancestors, some famous, some not. At less than five feet, she casts her own long shadow over the Intersection of Everybody.

Sharyn Mitchell
Sharyn Mitchell
bell hooks papers
bell hooks