- Phd to Ph.D.: How Education Saved My Life by Elaine B. Richardson
Elaine B. Richardson
Philadelphia: Parlor P, 2013. 264pp.
In PHD (Po Ho on Dope) to Ph.D.: How Education Saved My Life, Elaine Richardson successfully establishes a deeply personal narrative that has the potential to reach and inspire a variety of audiences both inside and outside of the academy and serves as a model of the public scholarship in the spirit of other widely influential literacy narratives, such as those by Mike Rose and Victor Villanueva. Through discussion of her own journey, Richardson’s memoir is an unflinching presentation of her early life on the streets, and an unabashed celebration of literacy and education as her redemption. While literacy researchers may be hesitant of Richardson’s treatment of education as a panacea (or what Harvey Graff might call the “literacy myth”), Richardson stresses the importance of “end[ing] the lie that Black people have no intellectually worthy language and literacy traditions, that English and literacy are the same across different people and cultures, and that upper class biased Whites in power and their followers (not all White people) get to define language and literacy for everyone else” (235). Richardson’s argument has important implications for readers in and out of the academy by encouraging the development of a stronger examination of “teachings and mindsets that are not to our advantage” (235) and the realization, particularly for members of disadvantaged communities, that it is possible to make contributions to “culture and to the world of ideas” through challenging the paradigms and finding power in language (236).
In short, the book details Richardson’s journey as a young African American female who transcends “cultural performance” and socially enforced expectations that she perform the identity of a “regla” African American girl: that is, someone who was supposed to be sexually available and readily accepting of physical abuse. Enacting this prescribed identity in her youth, Richardson’s experiences with prostitution and drug addiction capture the destructive feelings of guilt and shame tied up in this identity. [End Page 96] As a testament to the fluidity of identity, however, Richardson also illustrates that, by means of education and the support systems (such as her mother’s strength and support) on reserve for her, Richardson rewrote her sense of self within the academy, conducting research that would not only assist in her finding her voice but love for herself and self-confidence.
Beginning with her family history, Richardson establishes her roots as a good student in search of self-acceptance in the wrong places. As a preteen and teenager, she has periods of consistency in school but she lives a “double life” (periodically lending more importance to one life over the other) by simultaneously attending college and working as a prostitute, up until she is academically dismissed from Cleveland State and becomes completely immersed in “the life of street people” (110). Richardson spends a fair portion of the book discussing her history as a prostitute and details the characteristics of the men who serve as her pimps and abusers in the years before she goes back to college. Although Richardson’s life falls into despair and she loses her sense of self, she realizes, after some years, having two children, and narrowly missing death several times, that she “needed to love and feel good about [herself] again” (190). When she is accepted again into Cleveland State University to finish her undergraduate degree, she “put[s her] all into school” (194) and nothing deters her from her mission to succeed as a student. In describing her years as a student and then graduate student, she places emphasis on finding her niche as a scholar and how finding her educational passion and support system drives her to continue on and receive her Ph.D.
In addition to its candor about Richardson’s conflicted history, the book is notable for the lengths to which Richardson goes “to be true to the languages of her communities” (vii–viii). Richardson carefully represents the diverse voices of the people (be they pimps, boyfriends, often a combination...