Remembering Regina by Kai Jackson '89

Portraits of Regina Arnold

Regina Arnold, associate dean of studies and longtime sociology faculty member, died on February 16th after a long and courageous battle with cancer. Arnold came to Sarah Lawrence in 1979, and became acting dean of student affairs in 2000 and an associate dean of studies in 2001. She believed strongly in the value of community service, both as a social responsibility and as a means to get a deeper understanding of the world. Her efforts to forge connections between Sarah Lawrence and the local community made a lasting impact on the College.

Barbara Kaplan, dean of the College and Arnold's colleague for nearly three decades, said, “Regina was a deeply loved and admired member of the College community. The integrity and strength that characterized her life continued to define her even as she approached her death.”

At a memorial service on campus, those delivering eulogies included Kai Jackson ‘89, one of Arnold's former students-and lifelong friend. Kai Jackson is associate editor of the Howard Thurman Papers Project at Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia. She lives in Georgia with her husband, Kokayi Issa, and her two children, Ajani and Nubia. We are grateful for Jackson's permission to reprint her words here.

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When I think of Regina Arnold, the word quiet comes to mind. In the 20 years that I knew Regina, I never once heard her raise her voice. There was nothing loud about her. Regina's quiet was a discipline of the spirit, coming from a place of deep integrity, careful reflection and respect for the other. She was quiet, but never silent. When she spoke in that soft, still, steady voice of hers, you listened. More than once, I witnessed a noisy, argument-filled room come to complete silence when Regina started to speak.

Regina was a truth teller and a truth seeker. She was a beautiful woman, elegant and poised. She was reserved, but when she smiled at you, it was a wide, warm smile that held nothing back. Regina smiled from her heart. Her glasses could not hide her dancing eyes. They were the windows to her brilliant intellect and generous soul. Regina wasn't one to tell jokes, but she appreciated them, and her laughter, like her smile, like all of her, was genuine.

I first met Regina in the fall of 1985, my first few days at Sarah Lawrence. I still remember that moment. It was at the group interview for her “Social Issues” seminar. I remember staring in wonder at this honey-colored woman with the curly afro, dressed in a daishiki and khakis and Birkenstocks, holding court in the front of the room with easy confidence, smiling at us, inviting us, reading a passage from Durkheim to us like it was an enchanted tale. I remember feeling for the first time since coming to Sarah Lawrence that I might belong. I remember thinking to myself, “I want to be just like her.” I was a first-generation college student from the south side of Chicago. I had never heard of a Ph.D. or met a black woman engaged in meaningful intellectual work. Meeting Regina that first time, I glimpsed the possibility of what I could become.

I ended up taking Regina's seminar that semester and I would never be the same again. Regina's classroom was a sacred space. She was a master teacher. You never dared step in her classroom without doing your reading. You were sure to leave exposed, embarrassed and ashamed. Regina was a deeply intuitive teacher. She knew when the light bulbs were on and when you were somewhere else. She could read every level of your engagement and would put you on the spot with her signature question, spoken in that quiet but firm voice of hers: “What are you thinking?” The question that made you sweat. You had better be thinking something.

Regina demanded the best from you. She spoke your name in seminar like your name was important. She respected you and your ideas.

What I most appreciate about Regina as a teacher, what I cherish most, is that she was not afraid to bring her own life into the classroom. She let us witness up close a woman's struggle to balance career, scholarship, raising a child and keeping a family going. Back then, Regina's son, Phillip, was a small boy. Regina kept us entertained with stories about mothering Phillip, once despairing that, even at two years old, he already had the notion that boys didn't play with dolls. She connected that story with readings we were doing on gender. In Regina's classroom, we learned that mothering is deeply gratifying and a political act. We learned that the life of a creative, thinking woman was far from easy, one that required great struggle and sacrifice.

Regina was my don and my intellectual mother, introducing me to key voices in black feminist tradition: Angela Davis, Joyce Ladner, Anna Julia Cooper, Paula Giddings. In her classroom, I learned to view the world through the critical lens of race, class and gender. Her teaching helped ferment the student sit-in and occupation of Westlands in 1989. During that week, when so many of us were together, struggling, angry at the administration and impatient for change, wanting a college that truly reflected the diversity in the world, Regina was our lifeline. Every evening, at the end of her work day, faithfully, she visited us. She wanted to make sure that we were OK. Though she probably disagreed with some of our strategies, she never said so. “I am here for you,” was her message to us.

I graduated from Sarah Lawrence that year of the sit-in, and Regina remained my mentor and we became friends. She encouraged me all the time I was in graduate school, and when I began teaching college, she was a wise counselor, helping me to navigate the politics and find my way in the academy. Regina was one of those rarest of things: a genuine listener. I always looked forward to my conversations with Regina because I knew she would hear every word I had to say. I could count on her to listen with an empathetic, analytical ear that both affirmed me and pushed me further in my thinking. Rather than rush to respond or offer advice, she would more likely say, “Let me give that some thought,” and I knew she would. She was always so encouraging, never without kind words and thoughtful advice. “You can do it,” she would say, “Go for it! Good for you!”-and she meant it.

One of my favorite memories of Regina is on my wedding day, 12 years ago. She was out on the dance floor at the reception, doing the electric slide. I was surprised to see that whimsical, carefree side of her, but true to form, she was graceful, fluid and in charge.

The last time I saw Regina was a few weeks before she died. She was as warm and gracious as always. I sat with her in her living room, where get-well cards, photographs of children, and vases filled with flowers surrounded her. The room was a testimony to how so many people loved her. She and I talked from the early afternoon into the night. We talked about everything. She even helped me to work through a problem I was having with a character in my novel. She talked honestly and openly about her cancer. She knew she was at the end stage of her illness, yet she was hopeful and excited about the memoir, 95 South, that she had completed about living for weeks at a time on a cancer ward. She linked her experience on the ward with that of women in prison. She was looking forward to promoting the book. I was amazed that, even in the hours of Regina's greatest suffering, she refused to be imprisoned or defeated. She was determined to live out her remaining days active and engaged in the intellectual work she cared about most.

I will never forget our last time together. I will treasure all of my memories of Regina, and I will honor her memory by doing the best I can with integrity, strength and purpose. I will miss Regina for the rest of my life, and when I need her, I know where I will go. I will look for my teacher and friend, and I will find her, right there, in the quiet. .

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