Judy Juanita: Activist, Writer, Teacher
By Lis Arevalo
Since 1993, Judy Juanita has helped many students in the process of starting reading and writing in college. She is an English Instructor at Laney College and her passion is writing, and also teaching reading and writing through literature. Maybe not all her students know she is also a writer who has written essays, poems, plays and a novel, “Virgin Soul,” a coming-of-age story in which a young girl, Geniece, experiences big changes in her life and in the world. Many readers have asked the author if this novel is an autobiography, as she is herself a former member of the Black Panther Party in Oakland, and has participated in important moments in the contemporary history of American Education. In this interview, Lis Arévalo from the BCC Voice spoke to her and discovered the great artist and human being we have as a teacher in our community.
I’m curious about your name, Judy Juanita. On your web page I found a different one…
I was born Judith Ann Hart and my mother’s middle name is Juanita. And I took the name Juanita when I begin getting published. It’s to honor my mother. Her name was Marguerite Juanita Hart.
Juanita is a Spanish name. Was your mother from a Spanish speaking country?
No, she wasn’t. When I took the name I was living near New York City and several friends said “Don’t name yourself that. People will think you are Porto Rican.” And then my father said “Why don’t you just go back to being Judy Hart? This is after I was divorced. My married name started with a T. The next Christmas, my former in-laws sent me two gold pins “JT”. So no one was pleased with my taking that name, not even my mother. She said “Why do you want two first names?” even if I was honoring her, but it was a huge lesson. Sometimes when you do something that has meaning and it’s a statement of self-affirmation, it doesn’t please anyone, but you have to decide it and do it for yourself… And I think it’s a beautiful name. It has a beautiful sound, a poetic sound.
I have also read that your life story is different from your character Geniece’… What is your story as a Black Panther Party Member?
The tasks in the party were strong, so we were in the picket lines; we were on the protests at courthouses, we were all participants in community programs, giving breakfast for children; those who edited the party paper also sold the paper. There was a sense of everybody doing a lot of things, there was a lot of work available for everyone. The central committee only had a couple of women who were dominant. This was an era of a sexual revolution; the birth control pill came out for the first time in history, and women had choice over their reproductive freedom, so we were part of that era. Yes, we were out there having “free sex” but it was choice and if somebody tried to force us, there were confrontations, and that happens in the book several times. Many of the experiences that my character goes through were events that occurred either around me or I was a part of. So I was a young student at the City College, I did meet the founders of the Black Panther Party; I was the editor of their newspaper, I did eventually get involved in the Party, and I did carry a gun. My character is an orphan. I created on purpose someone very vulnerable. I had great parents who were very supportive of me during their entire lives. I also made Geniece a more thoughtful character. I was a willing participant in the sixties, very bright but very silly. She is very serious, introspective, as a character in a novel can be. She is thinking a lot on what is going on. In a novel you can talk a lot about the feeling about what’s happening. Geniece has to take responsibility for her own life direction.
School is also different now than the one in your story
It was in fact two dollars a semester for a student body card at Oakland City College (Merritt College nowadays). And when I transferred to San Francisco State the tuition was 48 dollars a semester.
What about the contents of Education?
Totally different. We activists hadn’t yet infiltrated and changed the schools, so History, Politics, Sociologists, English did not reflect diversity. Instead, they had a Eurocentric perspective, “the white man” one. Our purpose in having the students ‘strike at San Francisco State, which lasted four and a half years, the longest strike in Education’s history, was to create a Black Studies department, and it led to the Ethnic Studies department. So our purpose was to broaden the curriculum, and in the book you see different allusions to the experimental college, arts movements, black poetry, and many things which enlarged the focus of studies of American Higher Education.
Are you also interested in Gender Studies?
They are wonderful. I am not an expert on them but I studied a wide variety of work connected with the expansion of the canon, with getting feminist viewpoints into everything that we look at. That is the beauty of teaching English: I can expose students to all different kinds of “isms.” My second book, a collection of essays, is called “De-Facto Feminism.” It is about how one person redefines what womanhood is for her, from being a militant black activist to being an independent woman.
Would you call yourself a feminist?
Sure. I call myself a lot of things. I am person first but yes: a feminist, an astrologist, a Buddhist, a black arts movement survivor, a writer. Feminist is one more of a huge number of titles that I ascribe to.
As a writer, do you have special habits or routines for reading and writing?
Since I switch from genre to genre, when I am writing a genre I usually try to read in that genre. So, if I am writing a play, I try to read plays. However, I went to a playwriting workshop a few years ago, and the instructor said that it is good to be aware of what you’re are reading while you’re writing because there are questions that come up in a reading that you being to answer in your writing, so you need to be aware of how it is affecting you. At that time I saw that this one text “Guns, Germ and Steel,” which is a favorite book of mine by Jared Diamond, was influencing a play that I was writing. I read the source material that helps me understand the historical period I am working on.
What inspires you for playwriting?
I am inspired by the unheard voices, the unsung, the unthought-of, the people in the margins of society, the ones who have been forgotten. Those are the voices that I listen to, whether I want to or not; those are the voices who I can render best in my writing in general. I wanted to explore all kinds of genres because of curiosity.
Are creative writing workshops good for writers? Do they work?
Absolutely. They help through creating “false” deadlines for you. And I have made incredible, long lasting friendships through them. Getting support from a writers’ community is very important because no matter how much your friends and your loved ones support or like you, no one really can understand better than another writer what the agony or ecstasy or writing is about.
Do you have unpublished manuscripts? What are your future plans as a writer?
Tons. My mom came to me after she died, two years ago, and she said “You have ten books, get them out.” I think that these manuscripts that I have are coming out in one form or another. I have four of them out now, one of them is “”Virgin Soul. I continue to send short stories out, I continue to write poetry, and I have some children’s books. I keep trying to have that sense of urgency. I am just looking at my life and saying it’s time, Get it organized. Get it out, and get it in a form that can be utilized for a future generation.
Let me ask you something about you as a teacher. Do you like teaching?
I love teaching. It’s an exchange of ideas. I am an idea-person. I want to get my own ideas out and I want to hear and read what others are writing about also, so it’s definitely a wonderful process. The first essays that I assign, I hesitate over them each semester because I know that as soon as I start reading them my heart is hooked.
You have been a Black Journalism and Black Psychology teacher!
When the Black Studies Department at San Francisco State started, the first Department and Program in the nation, I was hired to teach in that department. And it was because I not only had the B.A and some teaching experience, but because I had been a student activist in helping get that department. Shortly, within two or three years, the highly trained, the PhDs started coming in and teaching Black Studies and Ethnic Studies. But at first all over the country, activist students were the ones who took those positions on. I had been working on newspapers, including a number of Black newspapers, including the Black Panther paper. I devised the course teaching how Black people and Black freedom fighters had used newspapers from the Abolitionist period up through the Black Panther Period. Black Psychology, I was a Psychology major, so I thought on my feet as I went along. What Black Studies did was add another layer of diversity to Education.
Are you teaching Creative Writing now?
I am currently teaching Development of Writing, and Composition and Reading. I get really creative in these classes. I always bring in fiction, plays, and other genres. I have found it is wonderful. I cannot do straight academic texts. My mission as a teacher is to help students learn through the different genres. This opens students’ eyes.
Could you say the world is now better than the world you saw in the mid-sixties?
Of course! Fast changes have happened. The African American president of the United States is only a combination of these changes. Many fields are now open to all people of color; some are reluctantly open, but they’re open. Some laws have changed and some parts of society have taken a lot of time to catch up with the laws, and certainly attitudes have taken a lot of time to change, but this is a very different world than it was in 1965. Plenty of changes are yet to be made. We still have to come to grips with the fact that we have given the police the power to be judge, jury and executioner, and that’s not the purpose of a police force, but we haven’t come to terms with that yet. The Panthers were the early warning system in the sixties that this isn’t right, that the police had too much power. And they take it out on the oppressed, but now, unfortunately, people are seeing they take it out on whoever is closest to the end of the barrel of the gun.
To keep reading about Professor Judy Juanita and her artistic production, visit her webpage, where some of her essays can be found and “Counter-Terrorism,” one of her plays can be downloaded at www.judyjuanitasvirginsoul.com.