Baring all, for all to see
Chico State professor’s eye-opening autobiography retraces her life of abuse, feminism and self-discovery
“Success is a process, and much of mine has come from a willingness to use words with compassion and conviction, and to speak truth fearlessly the way I see it. I do so, unabashedly, because I don’t fear the consequences of being candid and painfully honest about my own life. Sometimes, however, keepin’ it real with myself seems like the most difficult task in the universe.” —Dr. Nandi Crosby, If My Soul Be Lost
Even with someone she’s known for a total of five minutes, Nandi Crosby speaks with an assured candor. There are no walls. No filter. It’s refreshing, and oddly comfortable.
Crosby was definitely comfortable on a recent Friday afternoon sitting in the living room of her modest-sized home, which is nestled in a subdivision in the even more modest-sized town of Gridley.
It was her day off. Crosby was getting ready for finals week at Chico State, where she’s a professor of sociology and women’s studies. Her honesty and unfettered teaching style have built an uncanny connection with her students, who refer to Crosby affectionately as “Nandi,” or “Dr. Nandi.”
Crosby lives by herself. Her home is decorated with African- influenced paintings and statues, which she confesses she purchased at World Market. A canvas with her likeness, painted by a friend doing time in federal prison for bank robbery, occupies a small space on the wall of her living room.
She scanned her surroundings, explaining that she is extremely at peace these days living a simple life with her house, her plants and her cat.
But her journey to small-town USA has been anything but typical.
Crosby’s first book, If My Soul Be Lost: A Self Portrait (BookSurge Publishing), retraces her life growing up in a rough urban environment with an abusive father, as well as her path to becoming a feminist and activist.
The writing process was cathartic for Crosby, who wasn’t afraid to turn a critical eye on herself when addressing her own struggles as a young bisexual black woman and her relationships with men.
“We don’t want people to know our secrets, know our junk,” Crosby says. “People might think less or different of you, but you have to learn to say, ‘Fuck ’em.’ ”
The 37-year-old Crosby is a striking woman with copper-tinged dreadlocks that flow around her pronounced cheekbones, down past her shoulders. Her voice carries a rhythmic tune, even when she’s talking about something as mundane as grading papers.
She joked that the interview felt like a therapy session. It was hard to disagree, as she exposed explicit details about her life.
Crosby grew up in inner-city Baltimore, among a mostly black population. Her parents split when she was 3; she lived with her mother until the age of 9, when she moved in with her father.
It was then that she saw a different side of her father. Crosby says she experienced emotional and physical abuse, directed both at her and her father’s second wife. (She details a particular night in the chapter “Can’t Go Home Again"—a title that proved prophetic, as Crosby’s father severed ties with her after the book was published.) Crosby was a sharp kid, although she never received encouragement. When she’d bring home straight A’s, her father would speculate that her report card had been forged.
The father-daughter relationship became more strained as Crosby entered her teens and began dealing with her own turbulent lunge into adulthood. She lost her virginity when she was 13. “Virginity was more shameful than being pregnant in my ‘hood,” she writes, “so there was no way I could think about innocence lost.” One year later she had an abortion after being raped by a 24-year-old acquaintance.
Crosby moved out of her father’s house when she was 18. She wanted to be a therapist. The young woman from the ghettos of Baltimore shot through her first years of college and received her degree in psychology from St. Mary’s College in Maryland in 1991.
But she didn’t go into her chosen field.
Crosby had always been fascinated by her uncle’s job as a correctional officer and, as she got older, became more curious about prison life and prison culture. In 1992 Crosby became a correctional officer at Maryland House of Corrections Annex, a maximum-security prison for men. She observed life behind bars from the perspective of a black woman who was often considered a traitor to her race by the mostly black inmates.
After 12 months, Crosby decided she’d had enough and went back to school, receiving her master’s in Africana Women’s Studies at Clark Atlanta University.
“That’s when I became a feminist,” Crosby said. “Maybe I [was] all along, but it was the first time I understood it.”
Crosby enrolled at Georgia State University for her Ph.D. in 1996. While browsing the newspaper, she stumbled upon an ad that caught her attention. She was intrigued, called the number to arrange a meeting, and soon realized the ad was for a small-time prostitution ring. After weeks of giving it some thought, she became “Tiffany.” One month and five clients later, Crosby quit.
Her acceptance of becoming a working girl, she said stemmed simply from her need to feel needed.
“Many contradictions of the human spirit, curiosity, wounds, lead us in other directions,” she said, “even though we know it’s not right.”
Looking back on her life, Crosby says the only man she’s ever really loved is her younger brother William. His face and the words “Live Strong” were etched in ink on her right shoulder two months ago. His nickname, “Munch,” is tattooed on her forearm. Among the many photos of her brother tacked to a small cork board in her office on the sixth floor of Butte Hall is one of Munch lying on the bed with his young daughter, two days before he died of cancer in 2004 at the age of 26.
Crosby was devastated by the loss of the person she refers to as her soul mate—someone she could eat in front of with a mouth full of food, the only man who never wanted her to be anything but herself.
“I don’t know how to explain it,” she said. “He just accepted me.”
Crosby said a difficult break-up coupled with her brother’s death still leaves her unable, and uninterested, in pursuing a relationship.
“It doesn’t feel like a wound,” she said. “It feels like nothing.”
“I don’t know; I’ve never tried to explain it before.”
Crosby is now in her eighth year at Chico State. It is worlds apart from the predominantly black communities of Baltimore and Atlanta. Crosby is one of five full-time black professors at Chico State.
During the last day of Crosby’s Sociology of Gender class before finals, she gave her students a list of 50 things to do in life, beyond school, to remain socially active and engaged. One of them was to memorize a quote.
She was immediately asked to recite her favorite quote. The student, of course, called her Nandi—which Crosby legally made her name 10 years ago. (The name Nandi means “woman of high esteem,” and comes from Nandi kaBebe, the mother of 19th-century South African warrior Shaka Zulu.)
Crosby doesn’t have a favorite quote, but she shared one she likes: “Speak your mind, even if your voice trembles.”
The quote exemplifies Crosby’s philosophy on open and honest discourse.
Her office is lined with more than 50 trophies from her years participating on speech teams in college. Crosby is still fascinated with the life of the incarcerated—a society of people who want freedom, she says, but don’t know how to abide by the rules to achieve it—and speaks every month at the Suwannee Correctional Institute near Live Oak. She has been a keynote speaker on issues of activism, women’s issues and sexual violence on campuses across the country.
Crosby says whether she’s talking to her students, colleagues or inmates, the message is always the same: “There’s always an element of empowerment, and how we get to that place.”
And her book, which was published in February, has only encouraged that open dialogue even more.
It took Crosby four months to write and it still affected her when she read it over. The reaction among her students has been nothing but positive. Penny Krakoff, one of Crosby’s students, said it was refreshing to see Nandi as more than just a professor who lectures in front of the class.
Ultimately Crosby hopes the book will encourage other women to open up about things that are deemed taboo, or considered off limits.
“I like people to show up and be honest,” Crosby said. “Even if it’s not good looking.”