Uncovering Her History – Discovering Her Passion

The complex narrative of Nitoshia Ford’s life is inextricable from her intellectual journey. Her personal history may very well have set her up for failure, but seems instead to have strengthened her character and resolve.

Nitoshia Ford. Photo by Micki Leventhal

"My mother told me I would never be anything and that I would end up with five kids in the projects,” said the recent alumna (Gender and Women’s Studies 2012). Despite physical and emotional abuse at home, stints in foster care and institutions, and periods of homelessness, Ford managed to graduate high school on time. “I refused to let life get in the way and use my misfortunes as an excuse. I need to accomplish things and prove that I’m not a failure, I am not my mother’s child—I am somebody. I cannot let the negativity I have experienced win.” 

Ford came out as a lesbian when she was 16—a revelation that resulted in her being thrown out of the house. “While I was on the street I was exposed to the LGBT community in ways that I had never been before—people doing important activist work, especially in the lesbians of color community, which is very small. I developed an interest in the relationship between gender and sexuality, although I was not yet thinking about it in a very sophisticated way,” she said. Ford enlisted in the military right out of high school and while in the Navy she met and married a serviceman, giving birth to her son, who is now ten years old. “You make the most interesting decisions based on your history,” Ford explained. “I identified as a lesbian but I fell in love with this man as a person and I really wanted a family. I was estranged from my own family; I felt really alone and had a longing to feel and give love. We are still friends and share in the upbringing of our son, even though the marriage did not work out. 

“After I finished active duty we moved back to Illinois so I could attend college. I enrolled in community college with a focus on business because it seemed practical,” Ford continued. “I completed my associates’ degree in 2005 and got a job, but was feeling unfulfilled. Then a friend—a UIC student working on her PhD in English—encouraged me to go back to school and study the things I really cared about.” 

Ford took her friend’s advice and started working toward her degree in GWS in 2010. One of her first classes at UIC was “Sexuality and Community: Lesbians, Gay Men and Contemporary Society” with Professor John D’Emilio. “I had never taken a class like his,” Ford said. “Most people don’t realize there is a ‘gay history,’ but we read essays and theory from people who were actually there—he was actually there! I had never experienced the history of the marginalized in their own voices until I took his course. It was mind-blowing.

...my desire to pursue this history, to really follow an academic path, it all started in Professor D’Emilio’s class. 

“We did a unit on black women and I was introduced to the Combahee River Collective and learned that there was this group of black feminists organizing at the same time as Gloria Steinem and the white feminists whose names everyone knows. Since then I’ve read about Anna Julia Cooper, who in the 1890s was writing about what we now call intersectionality. These are the type of women people need to know about—the precursors to women like Barbara Smith, Audre Lorde, Patricia Hill Collins—black activist women who have been written out of history. So my desire to pursue this history, to really follow an academic path, it all started in Professor D’Emilio’s class.” 

The respect and admiration Ford feels for her professor is reciprocated. “Nitoshia caught my attention the first week of class,” D’Emilio said. “In response to a question during student introductions, she said that her favorite writer was Jewelle Gomez, and she hoped to be like her. There aren’t many students who know of a writer like Gomez, a black lesbian feminist fiction writer and poet, let alone want to emulate her, so I knew immediately that Nitoshia’s intellectual reach was wide. She has such a high level of commitment to learning; her enthusiasm is infectious and she helps energize the whole classroom. Nitoshia is the kind of student that I wish I could pay to take all my classes.” 

During her last semester, Ford took “History and Theories of Feminism” with Jennifer Rupert and discovered stories about the black suffragists. “We’re talking about the early 1900s; that is not so far removed from slavery and already there were black women PhDs speaking out and fighting,” she said. “You can’t oppress a people for 400 years and then not be impressed that just 60 years later the women of this group are getting PhDs. That means something and it is a story that needs to be told.” 

With a full-time course load and a 48-hour work week, Ford sometimes felt near exhaustion, but never succumbed. She credits the African American Academic Network and advisor Joel Shinault for helping to buoy her spirits and encourage her when the going got rough. “Sometimes it was just a couple of words like, ‘I believe in you’ but it really helped keep me motivated. I love Mr. Shinault and AAAN for that.” 

After graduating with departmental honors, Ford is devoting her summer to family building. “I have my son with me now full time and I want to commit time to being a mom,” she said. She is also spending time on reading for pleasure, “I'm currently plowing through everything by Octavia Butler.” In January, Ford plans to begin a graduate program in library science, acquiring “some tangible skills and career stability so I can be a more solid parent to my son.” 

Eventually Ford would like to complete a PhD and teach, but she is taking it incrementally. “I really do want to be a librarian with a focus in archives or public history. I think this, coupled with my BA in GWS, will set me up to do the research and writing I need to do to get the stories of the forgotten and silenced out there and help educate the public about their history and contributions. 

“I leave UIC with an awareness of issues I never even knew existed before my time here; I discuss things with my friends that none of us were really thinking about before. Even on this small scale I know that I am making a difference in my community by sharing what I learn. As a librarian I will one day be in a position to help guide learning—to develop a collection, maintain historical documents for the public or even curate an exhibit. Sharing knowledge, sharing the excitement of discovery, that is my activism.”

Update: On August 8, Ford learned that she was accepted to the MLS program at Dominican University; she will begin classes in January 2013.