Who are the women that made you? Courtney Marshall on looking for the light

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Womens History MonthEditor’s note: This is one in a short series of interviews with local women as part of our continuing Women’s History Month coverage.

No woman is an island. In reviewing life’s tapestry we discover the women who have and continue to play significant roles in our soul’s growth. Some we have known since birth, some joined us along life’s journey, while others appeared in auspicious timing, with a necessary word or conversation, relevant during a crucial moment. They may be part of the family we are born into, a family we chose, or a combination of both.

Some may be here, some may be gone, but all worked in orchestral tandem to mold us into who we are today. We honor the women in our own lives who have empowered and inspired, shared sage wisdom, offered their shoulder, and held space. In recognition of Women’s History Month, we ask the question: Who are the women that made you?

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Courtney Marshall

English Instructor Phillips Exeter Academy

Certified personal trainer

Prison abolition advocate through literature 

Wow. What a question. Well, I think certainly my grandmother made me. She raised me and my brothers and sisters. I was just thinking about her this weekend. I flew to D.C. to go to the Museum of African American History and Culture. I was just walking through it and I was grateful that she spent so much time when I was young, having us read things. She was always trying to teach us about Africa and about Black history and I was overwhelmed with gratitude these past couple of days for her. She was an elementary school teacher in Newark, New Jersey, she went back to college and graduated in her 50s, and then went on to be a teacher. I remember her always taking my little sister and me to the library, and always talking to us about education. I remember just loving the library and loving reading. I didn’t know that I could make a career out of it.

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Courtney Marshall and family at her grandmother’s graduation.

I always say she’s always with me, still, as a teacher today, and I tell this to my students. I want to be the type of teacher who would have been a good colleague to my grandmother, I want to be a teacher that she would be proud to work alongside. Not just because I’m her granddaughter, but because I care about the students and the way that I interact with them. That really means a lot to me. I filter her words as well as my mother’s. So many decisions that I have to make as a teacher, I really think about what would she do, because here, at our school, we don’t have many Black teachers, we have even fewer Black women teachers. There are no Black women teachers who have been here longer than I’ve been here. So I don’t really have an older woman to go to with issues, with questions. In a lot of ways, my grandmother is still with me, helping me get through the day, and answering my questions.

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Courntey Marshall and Alexis Gumm

Another woman who means the absolute world to me was an English teacher that I had in college, who I feel like I blab about all the time. Her name was Cheryl Wall. She’s also passed away. When I went to undergrad, I went to Rutgers, and she was the first Black woman English teacher I ever had, and she was the chair of our department. I remember her being an expert on Zora Neale Hurston, and I hadn’t really known much about her before that. I remember we were in class, and she was showing a film, and she said, watch this film, you might see somebody you know, and it was her! She was there talking about Hurston and the Harlem Renaissance and it blew my mind that a Black woman had a job teaching about Black woman writers. It was amazing to me. I never thought that was possible. I took that class, and a couple other seminars with her. She edited a book of essays about Black women writers, and when it was time for me to apply to graduate school, I went through that book and I applied to go to the schools where the people were who were in that book, because I said, if Dr. Wall thinks these are good people then that’s good enough for me! She was instrumental also when we had a representative visit from the UCLA English department who came to Rutgers to talk to students about graduate school. She was the one who told me, I was going to go to that info session and I would not have gone if not for her. I wound up going to UCLA. She was instrumental at a  pivotal moment. 

To learn more about Dr. Walls’ generation of scholars, these were the first students who wanted to study Black literature and who had careers in it. They were building a field for the people behind them. It is amazing to me the brilliance of these people, but also the way they took up service, for students and mentors, and they did so much. Just amazing. When I quit my job at UNH, I had a long conversation with another woman, Alexis Gumm, and I spent all day with her trying to figure out what I wanted to do and how I was going to bring this kind of Black feminist idea that I had, and what I wanted to do with it.

We always talk about nothing is ever a coincidence. Black women show up. They do. When I came to Exeter for my interview, I was sitting in the hallway outside the Department chair’s classroom, and there was a picture of Gwendolyn Brooks on the wall, across from this class, and I sat on that bench and thought Miss Brooks, what do I do?  It’s funny, because now I’m in the classroom next to that class, so my classroom looks out onto that picture. I found out later that she’d actually visited Phillips Exeter, and that there was a picture of her in our art department room. Then I found out about another Black woman who taught before me, Dolores Kendrick  (American poet, and served as the second Poet Laureate of the District of Columbia.) and she was so instrumental in bringing people to campus like James Baldwin. So when I say it’s these Black women who have paved the way, all I need to do is just kind of follow along, look for their light, see what they’re trying to show me and everything works out.


About this Author

Constance Cherise

Constance Cherise is a freelance writer and contributor for Turner Classic MoviesSee her work here.