Sr. JoAnna Boudreaux earned her Master’s degree in Sociology and is currently a part of the Ph.D program in the Department of Communication and Film at the University of Memphis. She is also a member of the Memphis chapter of the Sisterhood of Salaam-Shalom. Sr. JoAnna discusses how growing up in Memphis in the 80s influenced her view of racial identity and her desire to explore different beliefs which eventually lead her to Islam’s message of social justice and racial equality. Her Ph.D dissertation will focus on second generation American Muslim mothers.
Interviewed by Maryam Taysir
Can you briefly introduce yourself?
I am JoAnna Boudreaux. I have spent most of my life in Memphis. My father is a United States Air Force Veteran who retired here when I was five years old. He is part French and part Native American/white. He met my mother while stationed in Thailand during the Vietnam War. I grew up in Memphis during the 1980s. Back then, it was a very racially dichotomous space. You were either black or you were white. I am neither. I think of myself as racially ambiguous. I have always felt like a misfit and spent most of my teen years reading different philosophers and researching different religions. Islam appealed to me because it offered a message of social justice and racial equality. It would take me many, many years to understand that Muslims are as complex and nuanced as any other group of people. The Muslim community is not a social utopia and suffers from the same issues of classism, racism, colorism, ethnocentrism, sexism, etc.. that affects every other community.
I married at age 19 and had five children by the time I was 27. With the support and encouragement of my husband, I started college at 36. While taking classes I found myself gravitating towards a desire to address the same issues I have always struggled with: understanding the self, searching for meaning and truth, gender expectations, injustice, racism, how life circumstances inform a person’s identity and worldview, etc.… Eventually, I majored in Sociology and minored in English, Women’s Studies, and African-American Studies. I was a BA/MA student. After I earned a Master’s degree in Sociology I joined the Ph.D. program in the Department of Communication and Film where I define myself as a Critical Culture scholar. I am also working toward a Graduate Certificate in Women’s and Gender Studies. I have taught Sociology 1010, Sociology of Marriage and Family, and a Research Methods Lab. This fall, I am teaching an Oral Communication course. My dissertation will focus on second generation American Muslim mothers and how we navigate the competing expectations between religious traditionalism and contemporary materialism, how we balance the fine line between the past and the present, between femininity and feminism, between collective expectations and individual autonomy.
Besides being a graduate student at the University of Memphis and a dedicated member of the Memphis Muslim community, what greater work do you do in the Memphis area?
Well, I gave birth to my children at home with Certified Nurse Midwives, and I am a strong advocate of natural childbirth and attachment parenting. I just finished an article on unnecessary childbirth interventions that will be published in the Journal of Mother Studies this fall.
I am also a member of the Memphis chapter of the Sisterhood of Salaam-Shalom. It is an organization committed to building relationships between Muslim and Jewish women. I view all people as my brothers and sisters in humanity and I believe it is important to foster diverse relationships in order to expand one’s worldview.
Upon your graduation, what do you plan to do with your degree?
Well, I do not like to plan too far ahead. My immediate goals are to finish a book chapter, prepare my conference presentations and survive another year of balancing teaching, classwork, being a wife, motherhood, and staying healthy. InshaAllah, I do want to stay in academia. I want to continue teaching and researching. The most important conversations I have had were in the classrooms. I am really grateful to be in a space where knowledge is cultivated and encouraged. I also know that as a woman, a minority, and a visible Muslim, it is important for students to see someone like me in the classroom.
What has your experience been so far as a graduate student? How has being a mother and a wife affected your journey of returning to graduate school and pursuing your interests?
I have experienced varying levels of insecurity at different points during my academic career. I have felt out of place due to being an older student and a visibly Muslim woman. However, I acknowledge that my ‘imposter syndrome’ is probably what drives me to work harder. I consistently feel that there is no other option except for me to do my best. I remind myself that I have a right to be here. I graduated with the highest GPA, I have won awards, I am getting published, my conference papers are well-received. I was elected President of the Communications Graduate Student Association. I have wonderful relationships with my professors, my peers, and my students. Overall, my experience has been very positive.
Of course, there is always the struggle of managing identities. I am a graduate student, but I am also a wife and mother. I have learned that not everything is going to be perfect. Something always suffers. I am blessed to have a husband who is a full partner, a mentor, and my closest friend. He goes out of his way to make my life easier. When I went back to school my children were older, however, I learned that it was a mistake to think that they were too old to need me. Their needs are just different. I do think that having an identity outside of the home helps me to better see my children as unique individuals with their own personalities, hopes, dreams, and goals. It is not fair for me to attach my expectations to them. They exist to guide and teach me just as much as I am to guide and teach them.
As someone who has resided in Memphis for a long time, what positive changes have you seen in the community? What do you think needs to be improved upon?
The Muslim community has certainly evolved since I became a Muslim in the 1990s. We are much larger and much more diverse. I do think that we need more Muslim women as scholars, leaders, and role models for our youth. We also need to be more active in addressing the specific issues that affect the city of Memphis.
Do you have any words of wisdom or advice that you’d like to share with readers who want to do similar work as you in their future?
I think that women have been socialized to suppress much of our intellectual and spiritual gifts. Our community is in desperate need of the full participation of the other half of our population. We need more Muslim women as scholars, thinkers, writers, poets, artists, doulas, midwives, etc.… If we cultivate a community that uplifts women in reaching their full intellectual, creative, and spiritual potential everyone will benefit.
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