Metamorphosis | Butterfly Wings Recap

This week’s episode of Black Enough, “Butterfly Wings,” showed many of the characters in struggle– or in the words of creator Micah Ariel Watson, in metamorphosis. Amaya endeavors to find a new look that encapsulates who she is becoming; Jaheem finds that his big bro, Dre, doesn’t rock with his rapping; and Lena stumbles in her engineering classes. Even supposedly self-assured Vaughn lets Amaya in on a little secret– she’s been rejected recently, too. The poetry that provides a narrative through line in this episode is about becoming, and it is decidedly not pretty, easy, or smooth. It is difficult and complicated, and we have to believe that it will make us into something better, otherwise the process will break us.

Perspective is hard in that moment when you are flooded with sadness, anger, anxiety…all the feelings that course through “Butterfly Wings.” In the moment that Dre tells Jaheem that perhaps rapping isn’t for him, he can’t hold on to the feeling of limitlessness that he associates with music and that viewers see just moments before in a bright shot of Jaheem rapping, surrounded by greenery like a Kehinde Wiley portrait. Lena cannot find the self-assuredness she normally exudes when thinking about her path as she cries in the bathroom after class. Only Vaughn manages to find a little perspective when Amaya compliments her hoops during their check-in, and seeming to remember herself, she replies, “You’d be surprised how much power they hold.”

Butterflies grow wings, but Black girls? We grow hoops. Gold ones.”

 

This episode is about growth; it’s about detaching ourselves from notions about who we believed we were and giving ourselves completely to the journey towards who we will become. It is about sitting in that hard, uncomfortable space where there is no one but ourselves and God, and being still. Then, we work to understand the power of everything that came to a head for us to be who we are in that moment. As Dr. Stephanie Crumpton says so poignantly in her interview, “your grown woman self might be like ‘I remember when I was little I wanted to take over the world’ but your grown self is the one who has to show up.” Dr. Crumpton is insistent on the battle to become– it is not magical, it is work, and one cannot forget that.

And I’m interested in that, as a scholar– how we understand, communicate and transform the battle to become. In my interview clip that’s used at the end of this episode, I discuss my interest in how we as Black people, and especially Black girls and women, take the weight, the chains, or the battles that create us and turn it into wings. I think Dr. Crumpton is absolutely right to insist on making our battle to become visible, but I want to push past this into an even more beautiful plane of existence. Where can Black girls go to become the fullest version of themselves? Where can we exist beyond our wildest dreams, and then some? Where can we take all the battles that make us and craft them not into anchors but wings that propel us higher and further? What are Black girls in our imaginations, when our imaginations are not forced into one conceptualization of the world and the beings in it? When we are allowed to take up as much space as we want, what do Black girls imagine themselves to be?

In short: What does Black girlhood and womanhood look like when we can fly?

 

I think Watson takes up these questions in the entire webseries, but in this episode in particular. While we may not have comprehensive answers, I do think that Black Enough as a webseries, a form of digital Black self-making, constructs the beginnings of an answer. Despite the many shortcomings of the digital, I find the self-making possibilities in this space infinite and deeply satisfying.

So it makes sense to me that Amaya would begin her journey to feeling whole in the digital.

To modify Shange, “I found God in myself [online] and I loved her fiercely.”

Further Reading:

Check out Tanisha C. Ford’s non-exhaustive list of key texts on fashion, beauty culture and body politics in an African Diasporic context: http://www.tanishacford.com/resources/

Becoming, Michelle Obama

“Alter Egos and Infinite Literacies, Part III: How to Build a Real Gyrl in 3 Easy Steps,” Jessica Marie Johnson & Kismet Nunez

Ravynn K. Stringfield is a Ph.D. candidate in American Studies at William & Mary. Her research focuses on Black women and girls as creators and protagonists of futuristic, fantastic and digital narratives in new media. She often likes to say she writes about Black girls flying. When she’s not researching, you can find her writing for her blog, Black Girl Does Grad School; learning new yoga poses; or bullet journaling.

“Straight and Easy” | Celie’s Rites Recap

Celie’s Rites,” this week’s episode of Black Enough, grapples with beauty and depicts the creation of Black women’s community around hair. Implicit in the question that returns throughout the webseries, “what is Black enough?” is “what is beautiful enough?” 

Amaya goes to visit Ember for her appointment for braids, in spite of the catastrophe that was the Weston Crown Scholars’ Spades Night. Ember is kind and takes Amaya in, a move that is perhaps also metaphorical. The music, soft and emotive, helps viewers to understand that this space, Ember’s space, is an arena in which Amaya can be all of herself. Ember deepens this feeling by telling Amaya a little about her childhood understanding of her own hair as she braids. Amaya listens carefully, and inspired by the film the two are watching (which we are to understand is The Color Purple), she offers up her own childhood hair story. 

The two girls fall into an easy silence when Ember’s roommate Hadiyah bursts in. The girls enjoy each other’s company until Dre knocks at the door, looking for Ember. His appearance sparks a shouting match between Ember and Hadiyah, during which viewers realize that Dre is Hadiyah’s ex. Forced to answer the door and cover for Ember, who is supposed to be at a meeting, Hadiyah begins to let us in on a moment of vulnerability. She screams at Ember when she accuses Hadiyah of letting Dre run her life, pleading for her to understand that she is “trying to learn to love [herself] in private again.” 

The episode ends with the three girls creating a sister circle, sealed by the sacred ritual of doing one another’s hair. Ember continues braiding Amaya’s hair, while she helps Hadiyah with hers. They are quiet after realizing they’re each going through something: Ember appears to be on a weight loss journey, Amaya is searching for God in herself, and Hadiyah struggles to remember how to love. They are all exploring what beauty means, and specifically, what it means to Black women. 

The creation of the sister circle around tending to hair is a theme that appears in other works by Micah Ariel Watson, most notably, in her production for stage, Canaan (2018). In Canaan, protagonist Louie’s affections are split between church going, good girl Lisa and activist and revolutionary Camille which causes a rift between the two girls before they even have a chance to meet. After Camille leaves a protest that turned violent, she runs into Lisa, who extends an olive branch in the form of offering to help Camille with her hair. We understand that a sisterhood is forming in that moment, much in the same way we see it in this episode of Black Enough.

Watson is in a long tradition of Black women who are interested in the way community is formed around hair, and also in beauty shops. The beauty shop becomes a public sphere for Black women, in which they can gossip, talk politics and church business, in one of the few spaces that was often for them and them alone. It also is the site where familial bonds are forged. For many, visits to the salon with their mother, auntie, grandmother, sister or cousin, became time that they belonged only to each other and could honor that. I remember always having mother’s full attention on our Saturday morning drives to the salon, as I prattled about nothing and looked forward to the inevitable stop at Dairy Queen for dinner on our way back, as I tossed my long, shiny, relaxed hair just to watch it move. As much of a Daddy’s girl as I’ve always been, I could always count on a good long conversation with my mother as she sat me between her long legs and pulled my hair into whatever style she thought was cute on those days in between our Saturday adventures to the salon.

Though Ember characterizes having relaxed hair as “straight and easy,” there are always complications with even the most seemingly effortless styles. In this case, it comes with identity questions– is it really you if your face is half hidden behind a curtain of hair that was often was never meant to hang that way? Black girls explore our inner, and outer, worlds through our hair. 

What will Amaya discover?


Further Reading:

The Color Purple, Alice Walker

Poetic Justice, directed by John Singleton

The Virtual Beauty Shop: Crafting a Digital Black Feminism in the Blogosphere, Catherine Knight Steele

Black Hair, Black Voice,” Ravynn K. Stringfield

Hair Story: Understanding the Roots of Black Hair in America, Ayana Bird & Lori Tharps

 

Black Excellence & Hip-Hop? | Talented Tenth Recap

Amaya tries out a new look in this week’s episode of Black Enough, “Talented Tenth.” In the last three episodes, viewers became accustomed to Amaya’s casual look, either clad in yellow shirts and dresses or decked out in her dancer gear. Lena picks at her for buying a whole new outfit to hang out with an old flame (?) in a new context, but in the end, Amaya arrives to play spades with the Weston Crown Scholars in a dashiki and earrings in the shape of the continent.

The Weston Crown Scholars are varying degrees of welcoming to Amaya. Once the game starts, the conversation turns to Barack Obama, the first Black president. The debate is lively, and revealing: Dre questions whether Obama did enough, Ember defends him and his policies, while Vaughn lands on the side believing his very presence in the White House was a political statement in and of itself. Dre accuses Vaughn of engaging in “respectability politics,” when she states that “Black Excellence” has to account for something. Eventually, they ask Amaya to weigh in and she carefully notes his introduction of ObamaCare. When the conversation spins out even further, she cites her Diaspora Studies class as the basis for her interpretation of Blackness as subjective– a move that causes Vaughn to lash out.

After Vaughn’s verbal dressing down, things move on smoothly…until Amaya reneges.

How many of y’all play spades? If you do, and even if you don’t, you probably know that reneging is one of the most telling signs you don’t know how to play. In Amaya’s case, the example is that she played a spade when she had a heart she could have played.

Yikes.

 

The Weston Crown Scholars are unforgiving, particularly Vaughn and, surprisingly, Tryston. What should have been just a game turned into yet another moment in which Amaya felt as if she did not belong.

She runs out crying, only to be discovered by Jaheem as he walks home from work. He consoles her with music: back to back, they listen to music in a shot that draws directly from the original cinematic love letter to hip-hop, Brown Sugar (2002).

In a beautiful moment, deepened by “Loveyou” by KAT ft. Deja, Jaheem reaches for Amaya and tells her, “You good.” And in that moment, in the space between beats, we believe Amaya is safe.

While it would be easy to attribute that safety to Jaheem, I want to complicate that notion and consider that it’s the music, hip-hop, that throws Amaya the life line. Amaya is a dancer– music is the backdrop of her entire life. Music is dance’s soul sister, so it follows that with this song Jaheem is able to speak Amaya’s language. For once, she’s not worried about being “enough” in any capacity. Instead, she’s whole.

This is what hip-hop can do for us.

 

Further Reading:

The Talented Tenth,” W. E. B. Du Bois (1903)

My President Was Black,” Ta-Nehisi Coates (2017)

Beyond Respectability: The Intellectual Thought of Race Women, Brittney C. Cooper (2017)

Brown Sugar Is Still A Love Letter to the Golden Age of Hip-Hop,” Tari Ngangura (2018)

A (Future) Black Professor’s Prayer | Toussaint Recap

Responsibility

This week’s episode of Black Enough, like the other two episodes, begins with a quotation from Ta-Nehisi that comes across like a prayer. One of the words that my mind clung to in the opening was responsibility. The words implore the viewer to think about the responsibility that Black boys (and Black girls) carry despite the impulse to be carefree. However, I was still mulling over responsibility when we cut to a classroom, where Professor Rekia is giving a rather compelling introductory lecture to a group of moderately engaged students, including Amaya. Jaheem’s late entrance only briefly interrupts the flow Rekia has going.

“We breathe in struggle, and exhale innovation.”

When Rekia has dismissed the class for the day, Amaya and Jaheem strike up casual conversation, that leads to them going on an adventure to find the bookstore together. They chat about the reading, the white girls from Amaya’s dance class, Chicago and the remnants of suburbia in Amaya’s hair. At the bookstore, both Amaya and Jaheem pick up copies of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me, which Rekia quoted from in class.

“For the first time my eyes swayed across the page as the same pace as my hips…”

It feels only right that this episode ends with words from Dr. Stephanie Crumpton on her discussion of community based Black Girl Magic. The innovation of the professor, the teacher, reminds viewers how formative these figures are in our lives. Crumpton is spot on when she says that we do not make magic on our own; in my opinion, teachers have a very integral part in helping foster (or sometimes destroy) our magic.

Black women scholars are an integral part of this episode, and it had me wondering what it means to be a Black Professor. I often think about the legacies I am a part of, those which I uphold and those I work to change.

So from one (future) Black Professor to her someday students, here is my prayer:

I pray that I am able to care for myself. I will never be able to give you, my student, the breath out of my body. My breath is for me and God, so I pray I will be able to keep myself healthy and holy, so that I can share all that I can with you.

Know that I do this for you. I’m riding for you. I’m rooting for you. All of my struggle is for nothing if I can’t pass it on, if I can’t help to lift you up and encourage you to fly.

Which means that I jump through the hoops to put myself in the best possible position to help you.

And I write. Don’t forget that I write, but that’s for you, too. For my little sister with her nose in a book and dreams bigger than her Afro. For my brother searching for a way to make sense of the world. For my homie that needs to be heard.

I see you.

It is my dream to write about all the ways you will design to teach yourself to fly. I’m here to cultivate innovation, nourish creativity and to push you to think critically, carefully and closely.

But to be the best version of myself to carry out this purpose I read widely, reflect constantly and write fiercely because someone has to imagine a future for us, so why not me?

And everyday that you come to class, I hope you’ll realize why I have you learn the past. There is no future without looking back. We call it Sankofa, we call it Building on the Legacy.

This is the way God works through me.

And it’s worth it when I am able to open up my office door to the Black girl in my 11 AM lecture and assure her that her Black Girl Magic will level up to Black Woman Sorcery, knowing all the while God was preparing me to be a testimony.

This is the way God works through me.


Further Reading:

Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates

For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf, Ntozake Shange

Becoming Full Professor While Black,” Marlene L. Daut

Creating and Maintaining My Wellness Routine

At the beginning of the semester I wrote a post about rediscovering my wellness, detailing my not so great habits that led to a sedentary lifestyle, my descent into poor eating decisions, and what I intended to do about it. Six weeks after committing to some of the changes I laid out in the same post, it’s time to do a wellness check in.

When I added yoga classes to my semester timetable, I was unsure how this would all play out. I had no idea that after just a few classes I would have the Yoga Bug. Six weeks and nearly twenty classes later, it feels weird not to do a few poses even if I don’t have a class scheduled for that day. One of my new favorite things is showing off my new poses to my parents, who are increasingly shocked at how difficult some of them look. As a result of my 3-4 times a week practice schedule, I look and feel stronger, my mood is stable, and I’m proud of my diligent work ethic.

If I could recommend yoga to everyone, I would. My current practice includes Yin yoga one hour per week and two Vinyasa classes. I also took a four week “Intro to Yoga” mini series, where I got to practice foundations and learn modifications to poses that help me feel more confident practicing in class settings. However, there are lots of things that don’t necessarily make yoga classes accessible or comfortable for everyone. Classes are free for me as a student on a campus, but not everyone has that luxury. Stereotypes about yoga are stereotypes for a reason: classes typically are filled with thin white girls, which often makes me feel hyper visible and acutely aware that I cannot wrap my arm around my big thigh to come into Bird of Paradise like everyone else can. And, truthfully, who really has the time to go to classes?

Of course, there’s always the option to do YouTube yoga classes or find studios that cater towards folks of color, if you’re in an environment where that sort of thing might be possible, but there are so many limitations. In terms of finding time for wellness practices, I do have actual suggestions. Sitting down at the beginning of the semester to block out my regular obligations on paper helped me see how much time I truly had to do my own thing. I started with blocking out time I knew I had to devote to TA’ing: I blocked out lectures, discussion sections, meeting times, and office hours. From there I added regular meetings and appointments. Then I was left with a lot of space. I saw where I could insert an hour practice here and another there. Once I was satisfied, then I added regular dissertation work time. I think for the average PhD student, we tend to work around our writing, but I realized that if I was going to commit to my wellness, my priorities had to shift. Writing would fit into my predetermined schedule, rather than be a monster that took up all of my time like an inescapable dark void.

To be sure, I have made other changes as well. Really, it’s making decisions every day that lead up to a lifestyle change. I have been working on developing boundaries between my work life and my home life, which means that if I can help it, grading stays in my office. Do I always honor that? Absolutely not, but I try. I limit my consumption of fast food and do small, weekly grocery hauls so that I always have fresh and good things to eat at the house, even if I don’t feel like cooking. I also rejoined the Mindfulness Meditation group that I was a part of last year to encourage regular meditation practice.

It’s worth remembering that even though I was shaken into a recognition that I was failing myself and my own health, these are the things I needed to do for myself anyway. Yes, I am an overworked graduate student and that by itself comes with a load of stressors that wellness practices can help, but I also live with Bipolar II disorder. Managing moods has always been…a task. I often walk through the world as if a fog has settled right over my face and I can’t see beyond the joy or sadness, whichever, or whatever, is present in that moment. It’s super cliché, but when doctors tell you moving and exercise will help your mood, it actually will. I’ll be perfectly honest, I never wanted to do that. I hate exercise. But between yoga, being properly medicated, and eating better foods, I’ve never felt more clear-headed.

While I’ve spent most of this post being a walking advertisement for yoga, I do want to acknowledge the fact that it’s really difficult for some people to enjoy for a whole host of very valid reasons. And beyond that, finding a good yoga studio, teacher, and specific practice can be very much like finding a good therapist. Some teachers’ methods of practicing will really resonate with you, and others will turn you off. You have to be willing to try a few varieties to know what you enjoy doing: you may love the fast movement Vinyasa but find Restorative Yoga entirely too slow. And you might like a teacher and their class, but the studio might not feel welcoming. All of that is okay.

What’s most important is developing your wellness toolkit. Right now, mine includes yoga, good eating, meditation, journaling, art and warm comfort drinks, but do know that you should regularly attend to your wellness toolkit. Think of them as seasonal. Things that work for you right now, may not work for you in six months. Update as needed. Do things that help you keep in tune with what your body needs from you. It’s hard, but let me tell you, it’s well worth the effort.

Creative Note-taking

If you follow me on Twitter, or on my creative instagram account (@RavynnCreates), you know that I love creating aesthetically pleasing notes. People often have questions about them, so I thought I’d create a FAQ post about my notes.

  1. Why do you make your notes like that?

Well, first, it’s super fun! I love making things. It also helps me focus, and it makes my notes easier to read and study when I have to go back to them.

2. What do you mean it helps you focus?

Making creative notes is almost like making a mind map. I think about the relationship of sections and words. For example, if we’re talking about the features of the “Classical Hollywood Narration,” it helps to make that heading large, and make the features smaller underneath, or close to the heading. Sometimes it helps to box things in so I know everything in that section goes together. It can also help to color code. If my heading is gold, I might use a different gold pen to number or bullet point everything that falls under that category. Sometimes I use a combination of all of these methods.

3. Do you make them during class? Like while the professor is lecturing?

Yep. Again, it helps me focus.

4. So you don’t just take quick notes and then rewrite them?

No. I do not.

5. What do you use to take notes? Pens? Notebooks?

My semester notebook is a burgundy Leuchtturm A4+ Master Slim with 121 dotted pages that I got from Jenni Bick in Dupont Circle in DC. Yes, it is personalized.

I use a variety of different pens. For headings and small brush lettering, I use Pentel Sign pens. For shadows and highlights, I use Mildliner Brush Pens. For detailing, I use Metallic Gelly Roll pens. For regular writing, my main text, I most often use a Lamy Safari fountain pen. If I’m not feeling the Lamy (or if I have run out of ink), I use Zebra Sarasa 0.7 ballpoint pens.

6. Wow, that’s really specific. Why do you use those brands?

Leuchtturm journals have thick pages that don’t ghost (show ink on the other side) and they are pre-numbered. Pentel pens are super reliable, and they come in really great, bold colors. Mildliners, I don’t use as much, but I still like them for background and contrast. Gelly Roll pens have really strong color, and they’re also reliable and relatively easy to find. I’m using a Lamy pen because I wanted a good fountain pen and I thought it might be cool to invest in a utensil that I would love to use. It’s beautiful and yellow and I do in fact love it! When my students from Keio offer me stationery gifts, they’re often Sarasa/Zebra pens and Japanese stationery is the best, so usually I’m just using the pens they gift me.

7. So do you just, like, travel with all those notebooks and pens?

Yep.

8. How many pens and notebooks do you carry with you daily?

Between 2-3 journals. I always have my semester bullet journal with me and I often have my dissertation journal. Sometimes I’ll bring my leather bound diary if I haven’t written in a while.

I honestly don’t know how many pens I have at any given time. I have at least 3 of each type of pen in different colors (except the Lamy) in my purse. I mean…probably at least two dozen.

9. Do you let people borrow your pens?

No.

10. Really?

Really. I keep a couple of regular Bic ballpoint pens in my purse to give to my students if they need a writing utensil in a pinch.

11. But how do you make such pretty pages?

Honestly, I don’t know. It’s the equivalent of doodling. My hands just kind of do their own thing. I don’t lay out my spreads prior to class, they just sort of happen. I more or less start on the top left of the page and just build from there.

12. Do you have any suggestions for folks that want to try creative notetaking?

I do! First, try not to take it so seriously; let it happen naturally. The more you try to make it pretty, the more pressure you put on yourself and then you likely won’t be satisfied with the way your notes look. Second, experiment with fonts and colors in relation to others on the page. If you have a keyword in gold script on the right in a square with writing around it, maybe try bold blue uppercase letters for your next piece. Third, practice! I’ve been making notes like this for years and it took me a while to get to a point where I could make these pages. Lastly, comparison is the thief of joy. Your notes will not look like mine. My notes will not look like yours. Embrace the uniqueness of this little way of expressing yourself!

Teaching Writing

The most gratifying part of being a Teaching Assistant (TA) this semester has been the work I’ve been able to do with students on their writing. I didn’t even realize how important teaching writing was to me until I had to do it. But I love when students email me, knock on my door or catch me after class to ask to work on their papers. I love when I have a question about a sentence or a phrase, then they tell me what they were trying to say, and I’m able to reply, “Yes. You need to write exactly what you just said.” And I love handing back A papers to students who think they’re weak writers because someone told them once upon a time that they weren’t.

I had a chat with my students recently about writing. I encouraged them to shift the way they think about it, with the understanding that in some ways, they can’t. Taking approximately 15-18 credits requires likely dozens of papers a semester and it’s very difficult to give the proper amount of time and attention to each and every paper. You often don’t have the time to write drafts well in advance to get feedback from your professor or TA. You’re simply trying to crank those babies out to make sure you have something to turn in.

When that’s your reality, it’s difficult to think of papers as anything but a means to an end, a hoop you have to jump through. In all honesty, I can count on one hand the number of papers I actually remember writing in undergrad. Remember, as a French and Comparative Literature double major, and an International Relations minor, I probably wrote hundreds of papers. And yet.

Still, with all of that in mind, I still proposed a perspective shift. Instead of thinking of writing as another thing you have to do, think of it as an opportunity to share the thoughts and opinions you have about our films, backed up with evidence and careful analysis.

Yet another problem I’m up against as a TA is the way we present writing as an individualistic enterprise. Because folks have so many papers to write during the semester, it feels like you have to lock yourself up in a study room in the library until you have no more words. I reminded my students that that’s absolutely not how writing works professionally. Every writer that we read in class, every book that you get in the bookstore…all published writers have editors. They have friends and family and mentors that read their words with a red pen of love at the ready. They workshop their words. That’s why the “Acknowledgements” section of books exist. Writing is a communal process, but we present it as something you do alone. So I try to make it as clear as possible that I am willing and able to work with them on their words, because they shouldn’t have to be in this alone.

I try to be as sincere as possible when I tell them I look forward to reading their words. Yes, it is my job to read and comment, but I’m curious as to what they think and how they think, especially if they’re quieter in class and discussion. Papers are a chance for you to flex a little, but it gives you the time and space to think through your response if you’re not as willing to jump in to a conversation with only a half formed thought. I try not to think of their papers as more work for me, but a chance to get to know my students a little better. I think of my comments as engagement with their thoughts.

I perhaps do all of these because I want them to love writing as much as I do. I know my efforts won’t matter to many of them, no perspective shift will occur. And that’s fine. But as long as I’m clear that for at least this semester, they have someone who cares deeply about writing and their words, I will have done my job.

So many articles exist on best writing practices and how the greatest writers write, but so much of that is crap. No, you don’t have to write every day to be an effective writer. You should practice as regularly as you can, but every body is different, every life is different, every circumstance is different. As much as I would love to write fiction all day every day, I mostly write during the summer and winter break when I have extended periods of time to devote to that manuscript. Do I write every day? Mostly every day, yes. But I consider many different things to be a part of the writing process. Tweeting is writing, blogging is writing, journaling is writing, reading is writing, note taking is writing, outlining is writing, drafting is writing, revising and editing is writing. I do at least one or more of those things every single day, but not because I’m practicing every day writing. Writing is part of my self-care, my self-expression, how I feel whole.

What I didn’t know also makes me feel whole is helping someone else craft clear and substantive prose, helping someone find their voice and run with it, and encouraging them at every step of the process. I love being a sounding board, an editor, a cheerleader– all important parts of writing. I love it all. Teaching writing is difficult, as is writing, but I still manage to find joy in it every day.

Doubt, Failure and Rejection

If you follow me on Twitter, or even here on Black Girl Does Grad School, it’s evident that I’ve been in a bit of a funk for a little while. Okay, a lot of a funk and for a long while.

The truth is, it happens and it happens frequently. Grad school is just like that: some weeks you are fine, you feel like you are killing the game, you’re writing, you’re reading, your productivity is through the roof. And some weeks (or several of them…in a row) are about opening rejection emails before you’ve even left your bed in the morning, blank word documents, institutional drama, and the increasingly depressing feeling of trying to keep afloat in the middle of the ocean, knowing that any moment it could swallow you whole.

In particular, rejection letters really have the ability to drown me when I’m already barely afloat. On a day when I’m balanced, feeling healthy and whole, surrounded by love and support, rejections barely cross my radar. On a day where I’m already irritated and isolated (often self-imposed) due to circumstances outside of my control, rejections take me out. Negative self talk is already the soundtrack of my day, I’m feeling like my writing is particularly weak, and then bam– the worst sort of confirmation.

I sort of came to an understanding with myself. I stopped trying to fight the labels that academics were using to make me legible. I instead focused on simply doing work that fed my soul and that I felt was a direct expression of me walking in my purpose, worrying less about categorizing it and making it marketable, and more on making my words fly. This mental shift helped me prioritize, focus on and execute my work in a way that was meaningful to me.

And it worked.

Until it didn’t.

I now believed in my capacity to produce substantive, rigorous and complex work; I was focused enough to write it; I was becoming brave enough to submit it but nobody seemed to believe in me as much as I now believed in myself. It was enough to crack even the strongest of foundations and then the doubts seeped in. The worries that I had finally managed to shake reached through those cracks, grabbed ahold of my soul and squeezed. As often as I jokingly recount the tale of how I became Peanut Festival Queen of Suffolk, Virginia, the nagging thought that follows like a bad aftertaste is, Did I peak in high school? It seemed that making your dreams come true was a concoction of ambition, consistent hard work and a dreamer’s heart, but I lacked that dash of magic that seemed to be the key.

When all is said and done, I know I usually like to end my blog posts with a neat bow. I am nothing if not a (somewhat performative) optimist. I like to believe that even if I haven’t yet, I will overcome adversity and the fruits of my labor will be rewarded. And while I do have faith that everything will work out for me, I’m still living in a moment in which I am constantly stewing in a stale pot of doubt, failure and rejection, instead of perfecting my recipe for Black Girl Magic. I’m learning to live in the space between my imperfections and my potential, coming to embrace the harmony that failure and resiliency produces. Practically speaking, it means I honor my feelings, because even if I know that my future is bright, today’s forecast is overcast and rainy. It means that I take a moment to be transparent in my writing about what this moment is for me, instead of hiding from it, as if it doesn’t exist.

And perhaps…the answers that I have been hearing are not a no.

It’s an implied not yet.

Misadventures in TA’ing

One of the things I most looked forward to when I found out I was going to grad school was teaching. After spending my last semester of undergrad at UVA teaching my own self-designed course, I was eager to get back to the front of a classroom, maybe breaking down some literature with first year students or offering writing support during office hours.

But my dream situation got put on hold. There were several factors: I was now at a relatively small(ish) liberal arts university with overall tiny class sizes, which reduced the need for Teaching Assistants (TA’s). While we were guaranteed to teach at some point, if we wanted, TA-ships were not as easy to come by as I had originally imagined in this setting. Then there was the unspoken understanding that often times, first year students weren’t always placed in TA-ships. In terms of the content I wanted to focus on in the classroom, my university didn’t have graduate programs in English or Africana Studies; so in addition to the small class sizes, I wouldn’t really have an opportunity to TA where my heart was (unless, of course, I managed to snag a course cross-listed with English, which were few and far between).

So I pouted, but in spite of all of that, the prospect of TA-ing still appealed to me. I was placed in a programmatic graduate assistantship my first year with the Omohundro Institute; then with the Lemon Project, which I stayed with for my third year as well, much to my surprise. I loved working for the Lemon Project, but my desire to teach was flaring up, as well as my concern that it was getting to be so late in my graduate career and I hadn’t had any formal teaching experience, aside from leading workshops with Lemon and Course Instructing for Keio.

By the time I actually got a TA assignment, I was headed into my fourth year, almost formally dissertating. With only the prospectus standing in my way, I had moved past wanting to TA, and was ready to teach my own course, for which I had created a well-developed and, frankly, exciting, syllabus. However, due to an undocumented “policy,” I was denied my course and placed in a TAship that I had spent my first three years daydreaming about.

The circumstances under which I was placed in this position certainly marred my enthusiasm, but even so, as I gathered my thoughts about my teaching philosophy, and grand ideas for my first discussion sections, I was inflated by the prospect of being surrounded by gifted thinkers whom I got to help guide.

My cute little bubble of hope and optimism slowly deflated as I attended meetings and prepared for the start of the semester. Things were not shaking out as I had expected and, most importantly for me, I was already feeling like I couldn’t make my own decisions about how I wanted my classrooms to run, and by extension, feel. I was confined by more limitations than I had anticipated. The inability to put my own personal stamp on the two little classes I could call my own, and really express the fullest version of myself as an educator had me feeling claustrophobic and honestly, jaded.

There’s a part of me that understands this is part of the process. You learn to follow the rules before you can make your own.

But there’s another, much larger part of me, that has never particularly subscribed to this manner of thinking.

When the first day of discussion sections rolled around, I was even more nervous than I had reason to be. The professor for whom I was TA-ing would be there on the first day, mostly to talk about the syllabus, but also to lead the class in an exercise.

It felt strange, not being able to set the tone the way I wanted on the first day, and I felt myself shrinking, trying to take up the least amount of space possible. I left after my first set of classes, relieved that they were over, but also feeling an undeniable urge to cry. It had been so long since I had actively attempted to make myself small. I hated the feeling, but more than that, I hated myself for complying.

I wanted badly to get back in the classroom this week to restart, but due to the hurricane (which was more like a very windy drizzle), the school was closed and the students, and I, were off the hook.

I find myself deeply conflicted, but also very aware that it’s only been two weeks and I have plenty of time to turn this experience around. I’m conflicted because I finally get the opportunity to do what I’ve always wanted to do, but it seems like I keep stepping into one misadventure after the next. I love teaching– I always have. I very rarely played with my cousins on Sundays and holidays in the backroom at my grandparents’, preferring to read on the floor at my mother’s knees, but when I did, it was guaranteed to be a game of school, in which I got to be the teacher. It was an easy enough role to slide into, when most of the adults you knew intimately were educators. My mother was a fifth grade teacher, two of her sisters were teachers, her friends were teachers. I grew up drenched in questions of pedagogy and learning what was good practice based on which teaching policies my mother fumed about or praised while trading war stories with her sisters on the phone after school each night.

I knew from listening in on those conversations that teaching was not easy. It was a headache and it drove you crazy, but as I grew older, I realized that those conversations would not have been so heated if they were not fueled by a love of their job and their mission. My mom, her sisters, and their friends took educating seriously. Educating and education mattered. And I knew it was worth it every time she ran into a former student in the local Wal-Mart. She may not remember their name, but she remembered their face– a feat I’ve always found astounding given how much people change from when they’re ten to when they’re, say, twenty. The former students always want to stop my mom to show her they turned out okay; that they’re in college, or they have a family, or they have a great job.

Over my life, watching my mom and her sisters not only teach, but also care for students, has given me a model for how I want to approach teaching. Educating is as important to me as researching.

I think it’s important to remind myself of that from time to time, especially when I feel like my first experience TA-ing has been nothing but a series of misadventures. It may not have been the perfect timing for me, but who knows? Maybe there’s a student that will change my life. Maybe I’ll change one of theirs. Whatever comes next, I’m going to try to write as much of the story as I can.

Rediscovering Wellness

In the past year, I’ve gained an astronomical amount of weight. I can attribute the unwanted gain mostly to comps. I sat, virtually immobile, for an entire semester, eating any and everything I could find as a way to manage the stress of having to read hundreds of books before the end of April. I pride myself on having finished comps with my mental health in tact but my overall wellness was severely lacking.

I found myself constantly looking at old photos of myself from my fourth year of UVA and crying over pants that no longer fit. Though I looked at UVA through rose-tinted glasses, the truth was that I was stressed, often depressed, barely eating and walking uphill to classes every day. I naturally lost weight without trying and it came off suddenly.

One day I was unexpectedly able to wear my mother’s clothes.

Then another day, I wasn’t.

My descent to this pit of bad eating practices and barely moving came on over the course of a year. I formerly despised fast food, eating it only when I visited my parents. Now, I don’t want to even think about how many times I ate Popeyes and Cookout in the last month. I found myself too emotionally distressed or mentally fatigued to move, let alone cook. I had somehow replaced my stove top popcorn, lightly salted, for salt and vinegar chips. The decision I made at age ten to stop drinking soda had become void.

I was, in short, a mess.

But I didn’t wake up to my serious lapse in health until a visit to the doctor a few days ago. If the number on the scale didn’t shock me, the realization that I would be unable to safely continue taking one of my medications because of my weight certainly did.

I was letting grad school not only steal my mental health but my physical wellness too.

After a brief check in with myself, I made some decisions to help me prioritize my wellness. These were a series of choices I could make every day that would eventually add up to a lifestyle change:

  • MOVEMENT: One thing that was abundantly clear was how sedentary I had become. So I decided the first thing I could do was make the decision to move more. My school offers a free gym membership that I signed up for, and with the encouragement of a classmate, I joined her for my first ever yoga session. Together, picked three days out out of the week where we would do a yoga class. I decided I would do this for a couple weeks, to start build strength and endurance, and when I felt stronger I might add a cardio class to my line up.
    FOOD: I sincerely believe that the most important thing you can do for yourself is be conscientious about what you put in your body. I decided to change the way I think about food. Food, going forward, will be a manner of fueling my body, after giving careful attention to what it needs. The right food can be medicinal even. Realistically, this means making a concerted effort to plan out my grocery lists and buy a variety of good “fuel” to keep in my apartment so I’m less inclined to eat out.
    DRINK: I’m going to stop drinking my calories. I’ve decided to move away from flavored bottled waters and powders, and making an effort to drink more plain water and tea.
    MENTAL HEALTH: I’m recommitting myself to taking my medicine daily; going to therapy at least every two weeks; and reintroducing journaling into my every day routine. In addition, I want to integrate a regular morning and evening routine to help me steel myself for the day and then unwind from the chaos, which will include: meditation, journaling, coffee/tea, outside time with Genghis, spiritual practice, gratitude logs and prayer.
    SPIRITUAL WELLNESS: I am recommitting myself to Sunday’s as a day of rest and worship, I will do no work on Sundays. (I usually write my BGDGS posts before Sunday, so not to worry, I will be breaking no rules by continuing to post on Sundays.)
    JOY: I will relentlessly prioritize my joy and continually choose to do things that I love. This means, more time with friends, visiting the farmers market, visiting the water for rejuvenation, and rekindling my love of making art.


A few things are clear to me: one, is that I have failed to truly practice what I preach, which is to hold onto your wholeness while in pursuit of the PhD. Another is that I will not finish if I am not taking care of myself with the same vigor with which I approach my work. The last is that I deserve better that what I have given myself recently. I deserve a clean space, nourishing food, regular wellness practices and the space to pursue my ow joy. Nobody can give me those things except for me, and I heartily accept the challenge of putting myself first.

#RaceDH: Digital Humanities Summer Institute (DHSI) 2019

I have, on multiple occasions, discussed my hesitation to label myself as a digital humanist.

Honestly, it’s hard to say you’re not a digital humanist when you spend approximately six hours on a plane traveling across North America to attend the Digital Humanities Summer Institute– more fondly known as DHSI.

DHSI is part professional development, part summer class, and part summer camp. You pick a class and spend five super intense days in said class, taking a deep dive into your chosen digital humanities topic.

Some people might have been poring over the course schedule as soon as it was available, but I waited until I knew for sure that I could even afford to go. Tuition by itself was something like $950– but as luck would have it, I got a tuition waiver from W&M Libraries. There was still the matter of flying cross country and housing, but I figured I would be able to scrape together some money from my program to help cover the cost.

Once the matter of money was settled, then I looked at course offerings– for a solid ten seconds. I knew as soon as I saw the Race, Social Justice and DH: Applied Theories and Methods course offered by two of my DH heroes, Angel David Nieves and Dorothy Kim. I had been exposed to their work at Race, Memory and the Digital Humanities and My Mother Was a Computer symposia, respectively, and getting a chance to work closely with them was an opportunity I was not about to pass up.

So I hopped on a plane headed for Victoria, British Columbia, traveling to Canada and the Pacific Northwest for the first time. The cross country flight to Seattle was relatively uneventful, as I waited for my connecting flight to Victoria in the airport, I began to make friends. In typical Ravynn fashion, I sent out a tweet using the hashtag, #DHSI19, to see if anyone was traveling to DHSI on my flight. The tweet attracted a small group of people, which seemed to bode well for my digital hijinks over the course of the week.

After a quiet first night in the dorms, I was ready and eager for class to start. Compared to the rest of the institute, my class was filled with a lot of different types of people, most of them women. I was excited to be surrounded by them, and my excitement was met with lively discourse from a range of viewpoints on the various topics Drs. Nieves and Kim had devised for us: archives, mapping, social media, digital ethics, multimodality, data, labor, games and data visualization. Our nearly 1,000 page course packet included thought provoking articles and chapters from authors such as Roopika Risam, Robin DiAngelo, Nick Sousanis, Wendy Chun, Lauren Klein, Lisa Nakamura, Adrienne Shaw and Tara McPherson.

While all of the conversations that happened in that room on UVic’s campus were valuable, I find myself returning to project that we collectively created for the end “showcase” at the end of the week. It was a four-part project digital (and analog) project that questioned the infrastructure of DHSI by doing a break down of who is represented among the instructors at the Institute; that offered guidelines for creating an ethical digital project; questions to ask yourself before and as you get started on your project; and a reading guide for pieces to get you started on your journey with race and social justice in the digital humanities. We created a google slides presentation that was displayed on a laptop, but we also wrote each of the sections on huge sheets of paper and occupied an entire corner of MacLaurin Hall, plastering our signs on the walls– a display that was all but impossible to ignore. As Nalubega Ross aptly stated as the class admired our handy work, “We came, we saw, we took up space.”

One of my long standing concerns with the digital humanities is how often we create projects because they’re “cool” or because “we can,” without thinking about how these technologies can be harmful to communities or even weaponized. The questions we developed (and circulated via Twitter to the DHSI community) encouraged people to stop and reflect on the projects they were creating in their own classes. Technology inherits the biases of the people that create them; they are not neutral and it is imperative we stop treating it as if it is. (If you want an excellent study on this phenomena, check out Safiya Noble’s Algorithms of Oppression.)

It took me until DHSI to realize just how deeply invested I am in the digital humanities. I care about justice in the work itself, the spaces we inhabit to do the work (both digital and physical), and for the marginalized people in the field, creating “digital alchemy” as Moya Z. Bailey would say. I realized that in order to do justice oriented work, we have to work on the infrastructure of our institutions to make sure that we are safe and supported. It is astounding to me how much magic comes out of a system deliberately crafted to keep us out, but it is my goal to ensure that, at some point, doing this work will not be so soul wrenching of a task.

Digital humanists, as Jacque Wernimont said in her Institute lecture on June 3, 2019, are the “makers, breakers and killjoys.” We are wired to break things apart and reassemble them so they work better, faster, smarter. I am wired to make and break. When I care about something, I want it to be the best possible version it can be. It will drive me to work and will drive me to tears, but once I start, I am unstoppable.

It took me until DHSI this year to truly claim what I have known is true for months now: I am a digital humanist, and I belong.


If you’re interested in more about Race, Social Justice and DH, tweets about our class can be found using the #RaceDH tag on Twitter!

A Debrief on Oral Comprehensive Exams

I passed.

Not just the written, not just the oral– the whole thing.

I have now advanced to candidacy and am All But Dissertation (ABD).*

*(Note: This distinction varies from program to program. I know a lot of people who aren’t ABD until they defend their prospectus, including some people in a different field at my institution. I think the primary reason I get to declare candidacy and ABD now is because we in American Studies at W&M do not necessarily “defend” a prospectus. You write one, you get it approved by your advisor, and then you meet for a colloquium with a committee for feedback on it, but it’s more of a conversation than a defense.)

I had almost a week between the end of the written exams and the oral. After I did 24 total hours of written testing, my brain stuttered to a complete halt. I knew I should at least try to prepare, but in the end, my preparation consisted of attending Free Comic Book Day, buying ten new books, and sitting in on my friend’s MA defense. As I have said before, there was nothing I could say in an hour that would negate the 24 hours of written testing that I did, nothing particularly new that I could cram in my head beforehand that would make that much of a difference.

I thought about the oral exam as if it were a short class session for which I had done the reading.

It seemed to work for me.

The day before the oral, I was in Target, spending more time than I want to own up to, trying to conceive of the perfect exam outfit. My dad always tells me dress for the job you want, not the job you have, and while that doesn’t work for everyone, for me, it’s solid advice. If I look good, I feel good, then I do good.

After cleaning up and a face mask Thursday morning, I left the house in a black swing dress as a base, a pink, orange, and burgundy color blocked scarf, a bright orange purse and platform sandals. I had done my nails, given myself a pedicure and headed for Aromas with my notes so I could review for a the few minutes I had until the exam started.

With maybe half an hour to go, I made my way to College Apartments to make sure I had all the appropriate paperwork in the event that I passed. I nervously walked around the building, nearly running into my advisor on several occasions.

Then finally, it was time.

Everyone had convened by exactly 11 and I sat at the head of the table in room 5 with my committee around me. I was allowed to pick the order that I received questions, so I started with African American Intellectual History. Dr. Ely definitely scared me a little bit, asking me about specific passages from books that were now fuzzy and ill defined from others, asking me to spin out lines of thoughts I could barely follow, but fortunately many of his questions were leading and when he saw me stumble, he would redirect his question to help me regain some confidence in my answer. I didn’t start having fun until Dr. Pinson asked me about the ‘bonus unit’ I added to the syllabus I created for one of her answers. Essentially, I had created a syllabus of modern African American literature, and added a bonus unit on a Black Women Writers’ Renaissance in the Digital Age, citing writers like Brittney Cooper, Tressie McMillan Cottom, Eve Ewing and Morgan Jerkins to name a few. She asked me to draw connections between these writers and our Black feminist ancestors– and I was off.

After that, I began to settle into myself, answering questions with much more grace. I often stopped myself after talking for a while as I answered, to make sure I was answering the question I had been asked and not just talking off into a corner, as what happened quite a few times as I answered Dr. Losh’s questions.

Before I knew it, there were mere minutes left in the hour long exam and my advisor, Dr. Weiss, simply asked me to reflect on why I had chosen Uncle Tom’s Cabin and The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass to represent African American literature from pre-Civil War. I stumbled over my answer, though ultimately I think I answered well enough.

Then I was asked to leave the room while my committee deliberated. As I stood in the hallway, Chris poked his head over the third floor bannister to ask me how it had gone. I was still recapping when the door opened again and my advisor stepped out to get me.

“Okay, Ms. ABD.” she said with a smile.

I let out a loud “YES!” then re-entered the room so we could do the appropriate paperwork.

***

I celebrated my latest victory at Nawab immediately afterwards, as one does, surrounded by all my W&M friends. I even showed up at the American Studies pre-graduation celebration later the night. I got the best sleep I had gotten in months.

I had conquered my latest obstacle.

I returned to Suffolk to chants of “ABD! ABD! ABD!” by my father and hugs from my mother.

And though I deserve the most restful of breaks, I’m going to capitalize on my post-comps energy and do the faculty writing retreat starting Monday to start on my prospectus.

Now, I just have to write a dissertation. One step at a time.

Let the Games Begin…

I start my exams tomorrow at 10 AM.

I have four exams to take, six hours in which to take each of them, spread over four days, adding up to a total of 24 hours of testing.

Schedule:

Monday, April 29: African American Intellectual History

Tuesday, April 30: Comics & Media Studies

Wednesday, May 1: off day

Thursday, May 2: African American Literature, pt. 1

Friday, May 3: African American Literature, pt. 2

I’m already tired, y’all.

But I will see this through. So many people believe in me and my ability to do this but most importantly, I believe in myself.

I’m thinking about what I’m feeling right now and for the most part, the inside of my head feels remarkably calm. I feel at peace. I want to attribute that to the care I took this week to feed my soul and rest my body and mind. I did all kinds of fun things: I got to meet my littlest friend, I took myself out to see Avengers: Endgame,  and I beat out my anxiety on some drums at the Lemon Project Drum Circle. I was on a panel about grad school, hung out with my friends and did several face masks. And today, I spent a few hours in Charlottesville, surrounded by some of the people I love and admire most in this world.

Yeah, I reviewed a little bit each day, but I was mostly concerned with keeping myself calm and steady, because the more I pushed myself, the less likely it was that I’d be in the mental state to actually take the test. I read for five months; I read over 250 things. I know this material. All I have to do now is show my committee I know it. It was more important this last week to cultivate a positive energy and do only that which enhanced my mood and confidence rather than try to read a dozen more books.

I’m ready.

Let the games begin.

It Takes a Village

Well, I’m about a week away from starting my comprehensive exams. I want to take this moment to thank everyone who has encouraged me throughout this process.

Thank you to:

  • My parents, who have patiently listened to me count individual texts that I have left to read, gripe about arguments that don’t make sense and the rants about the possibility of me failing these exams. You both have been so encouraging, letting me know that even though this might be hard, I can do it.
  • My committee: Lynn Weiss, Hermine Pinson, Liz Losh and Mel Ely. Dr. Weiss, thanks for continually talking me off a ledge with these exams and convincing me that I’m going to be okay. Dr. Pinson, thank you for spending time with me despite your busy schedule and taking this on. You’ve really challenged me and worked hard with me to make sure I understand and can articulate the main arguments of my field and for that, I am forever grateful. Dr. Losh, thanks for always believing in me; it means more than you know. Dr. Ely, thank you for encouraging and affirming my sort of left of center ways of thinking, and always letting me express my knowledge the best way I know how.
  • My sister circle: Kelsey, Micah, Alexis and Leah. Y’all have held me up through this process, listened to me complain and moan, and affirmed me on the days I felt like I could actually do this. Thank you for the daily check-ins throughout this process and reminding me to be a human every once in a while.
  • My W&M friends: Chris, Hyunyoung, Khanh, Jennifer R., Jessica, Laura, Jennifer E., and Chardé. Chris, I honestly don’t think I would have gotten this far in the program without you looking out for me, so thanks for all that you do for me out of the kindness of your heart. Hyunyoung, your love and support is everything to me and I hope that next year we actually get to see each other more. Khanh, Jenn, Jessica, my Equality Lab crew, thanks for always supporting me and offering up your time and energy to help me succeed. Laura, one of my newest buds, thank you for being a little ball of sunshine whenever I see you and always offering up support. Jennifer and Chardé, thanks for always commiserating with me and making me laugh. I can’t wait til we can all celebrate our respective accomplishments in May together!
  • Joy Melody Woods Bennett. Girl, your friendship is so important to me. Thank you for always encouraging me. And thank you for the card. It made me smile and I needed that.
  • Dr. Tamara Wilkerson Dias. There are honestly no words for how loved I felt in the moment I was unpacking the care package you sent me. You saw potential in a girl you didn’t know, who went to your undergrad, who was walking the same path you walked, and decided to invest in her. I can’t wait to do what you did for me for someone else.
  • Leiaka. I have not forgotten that moment of honest to God kindness that you gifted me when I was really struggling in this process. That Indian food was bomb. Thank you.
  • Professor Harold. Thanks for seeing this life for me before I could see it for myself.
  • The Lemon Project Team. Jody, thanks for working it out so I could focus on comps these last few weeks. Sarah, thanks for always listening to me. You’re one of my favorite people, I hope you know that. Vineeta, I just want to be like you when I grow up. Kind, compassionate, but fiercely invested in the quality of my work and the impact it will have on the people around me. Just know that the way you walk through the world is an example for young scholars like me who need someone to look up to. You’re doing the work I want to do someday.
  • Literally everyone (particularly other grad students) who has been in my replies and DMs wishing me good luck on comps. There are entirely too many of you all to name individually, but each of you bring me such joy and I wish you all nothing but the best.
  • The senior scholars who have been encouraging me, particularly Roopika Risam, Karin Wulf, and Jessica Parr. Dr. Risam, thanks for always having a kind word for me. Dr. Wulf, thanks for always reminding me that it’s a process, and that I’ll be okay. Dr. Parr, thanks for always believing in me and my work and connecting me with other scholars and opportunities. You’ve taken me under your wing in a lot of ways, and I’m grateful for it.
  • My BGDGS editorial team, Taylor, Trayc, and Rae’Jean. Thanks for dealing with my last minute posts to be edited and sporadic scheduling while I’ve been preoccupied with comps. Thanks for baring with me.
  • My W&M undergrad friends who always ask me how comps is going whenever I see them: Ka’myia, Zach, Leonor, and Brendan. I know I’m stressing y’all out with my sad tweets but it’ll be over soon!
  • Anyone who has done or said something kind to me since January. You have no idea how one little comment or act can turn someone’s day around.

It takes a village. A village got me to this point and a village will carry me through this storm and out the otherside.

Thanks for everything, y’all.

The Wasteland: Dating in Grad School

I’ve been single for so long that none of my current friends have known me with a partner.

My dating life for the past seven years has been a series of starts and stops, misunderstandings and miscommunications, and unrequited loves galore. It’s particularly bad because I spend months, or even years at a time completely floored by mood episodes that leave me unable to care for myself, forget dating. When I can afford to think about dating, I’m usually hung up on some guy that either strung me along or didn’t want me, causing me to believe in the falsehood that I was unworthy of their love. If I fall, when I fall, I fall hard and am essentially inconsolable until I completely move on, which, to the chagrin of my inner circle, could be years. (I honestly still cringe at the number of hours I spent crying over the dude I was in love with the last half of college. Whew, chillay.)

In undergrad, everything was so ephemeral and there was no pressure. Not to mention, I was at UVA on a mission to get that degree and nothing else mattered. My blinders were on and I didn’t stray from the path. When I emerged four years later, with a degree in hand, I barely had any relationships to show for it, friends or otherwise. But now? Now I’m putting the pieces in place to build the life I’ve always wanted. Being a grad student is the start of my career, not just preparation. Everything in my academic career is falling into place: I’ve developed a brand that’s based in large part on transparency and public facing work, I have a publication in the works, I’m getting ready to pass my comprehensive exams and propose the course of my dreams to teach next year. I have a platform and my words are making their way out into the world. My social life, however, is an actual wasteland.

There are plenty of things that account for that. 1) Williamsburg, VA is not where you go when you’re in your mid-twenties and you’re figuring out your life. It’s where you go when you want a nice place to retire, and yes, I figured that out after I accepted my place here. So there’s a scarcity of young people; specifically young Black people that aren’t undergraduates, so 2) my pool is limited. Then, even if there were young Black people to meet in my area, 3) I don’t go out. I spend most of my time holed up in my apartment working, and when I’m not there, I’m holed up at my parents’ doing work. So, it’s partially my fault, but also even if I wanted to go out, there’s nothing to do, which is related to point 1.

Then, once we get past those factors, there are the more troubling concerns that no one really wants to talk about. A plus-sized, solidly brown-skinned girl is rarely anyone’s top choice. Drop my degrees, ambition, height and willingness to stand up for myself into the mix and you’ve got an “intimidating” woman, who should be avoided at all costs. (I can already anticipate the dudes in my mentions once I post this article trying to refute these claims, but you try being single for seven years and then we’ll talk.)

The worst part is, once you get past all the superficial reasons why I’m single, you get to the core–is it me? That guy from undergrad seemed to have a cutting word about me for almost every letter of the alphabet. Some days, I was “abrasive,” others I was “bossy” and “demanding.” Did those words actually describe me? Maybe. But at my core, underneath the sarcasm and hard exterior, few people could see me for who I am: an over-emotional, empathetic, but loveable piece of work.

While working in a profession that makes me doubt myself daily, my lack of social life really makes me doubt my worthiness. After spending all day worrying if I’ll pass comps, if I’ll ever get published, if I’m good enough to teach, I get to spend all night wondering why I haven’t been good enough for anyone in nearly seven years. My engaged friend soothes, my church girl prays, my other single friend commiserates but at the end of the day, I’m still me, alone and stuck in this spot for as long as the dissertation dictates, with no prospects and no hope.

Well, not quite. “The hopeless romantic in me won’t let the hope die,” as my friend Alexis would say. I hope I can have my career and a family one day. The good news? I’m still young and there’s plenty of time for things to change, but for now I guess I’m just chilling in the Wasteland, waiting for Future Husbae to appear.

I can’t wait to meet him.

Freedom in Found Footage | Can I Get A Witness? Recap

“Every now and then you just need to be reminded of who you are in God.”

 

This week on Black Enough, Amaya is taken to church– in all senses of the expression. And as Amaya is being ministered to, so is the viewer. When she begins to dwell in the possibility of the words she is hearing in service, we see her world open up. This transformation is visually represented through found footage of Black folks from all walks of life dancing– Amaya’s love language. Not only is dancing Amaya’s love language, we have seen earlier in the series how this is God’s way of working through her and also her line of communication with Him.

This time, though, the experience is communal. The shots of joyful dancers may perhaps exist only in Amaya’s mental space, but she can share this moment of transformation with folks that are coming to be close to her. Even the found footage often shows dancers in community with others.

 

“One day we gone fly unchained like Django…”

Vitamin Cea’s original song, “Wings,” that works in concert with the stunning visuals and editing, includes this poignant line which addresses the community work implicit in reaching infinity. We may not all be able to fly like Riri Williams, but we can dance, and we find freedom in that practice together.

Amaya begins to take flight but is immediately grounded when she checks her phone and learns that an unarmed young Black man has been shot in Kansas City. Jaheem and Ember, who have accompanied Amaya to church, cover her and lean into each other as they learn to navigate flight in a world that would not just see them grounded, but lifeless.

Can I Get A Witness?” was right on time for me as I struggled with who I saw in the mirror. As someone obsessed with flight, the thought that I was so focused on what my body wasn’t, instead of what it is or can be, was uncharacteristic. Watching Amaya lean into the (im)possibility of her own body, feeling that dancing is as close to flying as we want it to be, helped me refocus my mind and realign myself with my body.

As much as this world we inhabit wants Black bodies to either be lifeless or exist in boxes and limitations, with easy access to us for exploitation, we find ways each and every day to be unchained. This episode reminded me of how I am inextricably linked with impossibility– I exist to do the impossible. We exist to do the impossible.

We laugh. We love. We dance.

 

Watson’s found footage exemplifies this. She found freedom in found footage and shared that joy with all of us.

 

 

Further Reading:

Island Possessed, Katherine Dunham

In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens: Womanist Prose, Alice Walker

Riri Williams: Ironheart #1 (2018), Eve L. Ewing

Electric Arches, Eve L. Ewing

Ravynn K. Stringfield is a Ph.D. candidate in American Studies at William & Mary. Her research focuses on Black women and girls as creators and protagonists of futuristic, fantastic and digital narratives in new media. She often likes to say she writes about Black girls flying. When she’s not researching, you can find her writing for her blog, Black Girl Does Grad School; learning new yoga poses; or bullet journaling.

Soul Food | Black Magic Recap

“I’d be spirit. I’d transcend space and time and physicality. I’d be soul because nobody can capture that you know…”

This week’s episode of Black Enough, Black Magic,” explores one of the most essential sites of transcendence in Black culture: the kitchen. After the beginning of a poem that asks the question we work to investigate over the course of the episode, what is magic?, we enter Professor Rekia’s class. Rekia gives a rousing lecture on the place of food in the Black intellectual and cultural tradition, invoking the innovation and ingenuity our ancestors poured into their food, performing transfiguration on scraps and creating feasts. She ends class with an invitation to her students to create their own soul food meal for extra credit.

As Amaya prepares to make her dish back in her apartment, she encounters Lena, who, due to her frustrations with her school work in the engineering school, is about to break at the seams. She lashes out at Amaya, taking out her anger on her friend and Jaheem, who arrives mid-fight, and ends the conversation with the decision to take space from Amaya.

A little later, Jaheem and Amaya prepare their dishes in the kitchen, playfully engaging in some verbal sparring about greens that turns into a deeper conversation about what, and who, both of them want to be in the world. When confronted with the question of what would she like to be if she could be anything, she finally says aloud that she would be a dancer. It is no longer a hobby– her decision to put that energy into the universe marks her decision to walk in her purpose. Amaya volleys the question back to Jaheem, asking about his mixtape, and we see Jaheem falter.

Their soul searching moment ends as Ember and Hadiyah arrive with their contributions to the meal. The four of them connect and find joy in the food they have prepared, and we see the magic, feel it even, as we see that moment they share.

Woven into the story of this episode are interviews from myself and Kemi Layeni with our personal recipes for what we think of as a Black Girl Magic Potion. It speaks to the uniqueness of our magic that the contents of our respective potions are so different. Layeni focuses more on the feeling of the magic and the things that make her feel like magic– she adds her favorite foods, confidence, humor, loyalty to Black people, and a cup of grace. I mix together more physical objects and a sensation: sunflowers, gemstones, water, coconut oil, vanilla extract, a nameplate necklace, hoop earrings and the first few notes of a Lauryn Hill song.

This question of magic is an important one to Black culture. Its traces are in our literature and the residues live in our music. We can taste it in our food and feel it in our bodies. I often think of the talisman that Frederick Douglass has which protects him from being beaten and gives him the strength to fight off Covey. I think of Zora Neale Hurston and her interest in hoodoo. I think of Charles Chesnutt and The Conjure Woman And Other Tales. I think of Solomon the Flying African. I think of the way spirits move across our literature like in Sing, Unburied, Sing.

Our magic is as large as generations and also exists in the confines of one kitchen at Weston College. That they find it themselves and one another is a gift that they can share at the kitchen table.


Further Reading:

Michael Twitty, The Cooking Gene: A Journey Through African American Culinary History in the Old South

Zora Neale Hurston, Mules and Men

Charles Chesnut, The Conjure Woman and Other Tales

Jessica Marie Johnson, “Fury and Joy: Feminism at the Kitchen Table

 

My attempt at joining the Academy