So many words have been shared in the last few days about Conseula Francis, professor of English and African-American studies and associate provost at the College of Charleston, who died this past Monday at the age of 43 after a brief illness. That she was fierce and funny. That she was smart and committed. That she was loved by students and colleagues and friends. That she had a beautiful smile. That she died so much too young.
Hundreds of friends and colleagues crowded into the Stern Center Ballroom on Tuesday to tell her family how much she meant to them. But what did it mean to be Conseula, especially when she meant so much to so many people?
At every moment, Conseula understood what her being a black female academic and administrator meant to students, faculty, and staff at the College of Charleston. She couldn’t just teach and write and serve on committees, though she did all of those things, spectacularly well. She also had to symbolize all of the different things people at every level, black and white, wanted and needed the college and the world to be, even though — especially though — they weren’t and aren’t yet any of those things. She knew that her face in her job represented something to people, all of the time. And yet she wore that, not as a burden, but as a kind of second skin. For every kind of role model that she had to be, she was still just Conseula.
How did she do it? Most obviously, she had mad skills for constructing sentences, for knowing what to say and how to say it. We were in a writing group with Alison Piepmeier for over 10 years, and Conseula transformed so many of my confused paragraphs. She would ask a few questions, and then out of her mouth would come what I always meant to say in the first place. She told amazing stories, and those stories were always filled with fully recounted conversations. Even at the very end, when the doctors asked her if she knew what was happening, she answered succinctly and baldly. And when they asked whether she had any questions, she simply and politely asked, “Would it be rude if I asked you to please stop talking?”
If Conseula was telling a story about you — and so many stories were told — you came across as a little bit more fabulous. Not because of hyperbole or embellishment, but because of her animated spirit, her hand gestures and her word choices. The other reason Conseula was able to be so many things for so many people, just by being herself, was that she always so fully present. And by being present, she made you feel that you were present too.
For that reason, Conseula was a spectacular mother. I do not mean that she produced hand-made Halloween cookies for the class party or that she managed their lives with the control of a helicopter parent. Instead, I mean that she knew her children; she represented her children. Conseula parented by thinking about how the world looked from their eyes. She talked about her daughters with love, compassion, humor, anxiety, frustration, devotion; she always wanted them to learn to become who they wanted to be. She was fully engaged with those girls in ways that was sometimes daunting from the outside. She could tell the story of her girls’ lives in detail and with love. She knew them as individuals, and she was fiercely devoted to their well-being. We had many conversations about parenting, and I often went to her for advice. And after all the probing questions, she would often say, in one form or the other, that I would just have to let that go.
I am having a very hard time letting her go.
Claire P. Curtis is a professor of political science at College of Charleston.
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