Book by: Ross, M
Review by: K. Leigh Hamm Forell
Campus Support Programs
Huston-Tillotson College

In the memorable words of Ella Fitzgerald, “It isn’t where you come from; it’s where you’re going that counts.”  The truth in this expression is evidenced in the research and analysis of Marilyn Ross who interviewed and synthesized responses of young, successful African-American women from low-income, inner-city, predominantly single parent homes who attend Florida Memorial College.  Success Factors is a companion study and follow-up to Ross’s 1998 research of the same nature with young African-American men.

Here Ross illuminates the strand of determination that links modern African-American women who surmount the perils of street life to successfully matriculate and navigate through higher education with the historic trials and tribulations of slave women. Her observations are drawn from the oral narrative of her participants, a timeless tradition of black culture.  She enumerates the overarching themes present in the women’s stories including the “haunting silence of being alone” (p.8), the struggle to traverse “double consciousness” and develop a strong sense of “black identity within the circumference of a white-ruled society (p.14), the presence of fear (p.15), and their estrangement from African-American males (p.13).  These themes are linked to several pieces of African-American literature reviewed by Ross and her students who respond poignantly to the textual portrayal as well as their relevance and significance to their lives. 

Ross’s literature review and neo-slave narrative is a gem and serves as a platform from which she examines a broad range of texts from known authors, e.g., Maya Angelou and Alice Walker, to controversial accounts such as the Moynihan report. A substantial portion of the text is dedicated to the deconstruction and analysis of these literary works by both Ross and her subjects; this is both the greatest strength and weakness of Success Factors.  Although the appraisal of literary passages is valuable in its own right, the limitation of Ross’ book lies in the synthesis between the reviews, the student interviews, and the notion of success factors.  Perhaps this is just an instance of the title being misleading or of reader assumption, and not Ross’s original intent, but she delineates the success of her students without discussing how their accomplishments were realized.  In other words, one learns of the trials and tribulations faced by the young women and what was required of them to surpass difficulties (e.g. motivation, strong coping skills, etc.), but the study never examines how the students acquired these skills.  Therefore the reader is left wondering what “factors” contributed to their success.  How did these young women “make it” in the midst hardship? For advisors, this omission is disappointing in its failure to illuminate the tools that could have allowed other students to achieve similar success. 

This criticism is not intended to steer readers away from Ross’s work.  However, it serves as a warning that the research is not framed in a manner to guide practitioners. Rather the author is more interested in illustrating the reality faced by many young African-American women, the histories and foundations of their struggles, and their personal reflections on the situations they face alongside their brothers and sisters.  The words of the young women are spoken from the heart, beautiful and touching.  Their stories are invaluable and their insight, enlightening.  They are the relics of lived experience from women who are going places in spite of where they’ve been.  They can serve as an inspiration to all.

Success factors of young African-American Women at a Historically Black College. (2003). Book by Ross, M. Review by K. Leigh Hamm Forell. Westport, CT: Greenwood Publishing, 152 pp. ISBN #0-89789-737-4.

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