Week 1: Ravynn “Branches Out”

This Black girl doing grad school is back in action after a blissful month of zero obligation and yet, I find that I’m still not ready to face the harsh reality of another semester at school.

School was supposed to start this past week for me, but life didn’t want to cooperate. My friend and I showed up on the wrong day for our class we have together; the next day, I woke up to a message from one of my professors informing me that her entire course was cancelled; and to further mess with my schedule, the class which I had wrongly assumed was the day before, had been cancelled because the professor was battling a nasty bout of the flu.

Now, I’ve never had something like that happen to me– have an entire course get cancelled on me last minute. It was scary and stressful and quite frankly ruined my bullet journal. I spent most of Thursday sending e-mails and texts, and arranging meetings with professors to see if there was something I could take last minute. Finally, I managed to scrounge something together and my courses for this semester will be:

  1. Texts in African-American life since Reconstruction- a history course which promises to be interesting. At the very least, a solid quarter of the books have been on my reading list for a while and it never hurts to dig deeper into my Africana Studies side.
  2. Independent Study, Harlem in Vogue- reading some Harlem Renaissance lit, some criticism and hopefully putting together a bomb project for this class.
  3. Independent Study, New Women- reading some New Women lit. It’s not exactly me but fortunately it’s close enough to what I am interested in, plus writing a literary criticism paper will be useful practice for me considering I’d like my degree specialty to be in English.

You might have noted a bit of sarcasm and a hint of bitterness– it’s because being disciplinarily English and Africana Studies in an interdisciplinary program which emphasizes History is a struggle.

It’s no fault of the program’s or the school’s. We have a world renowned history department. Anyone who’s serious about American History for higher ed probably looked at William and Mary, particularly colonial history. Who wouldn’t want to take courses in a world renowned history department?

Well, me, I guess.

Honestly, history is far too white, far too male and far too rigid for the kind of work I want to do. Practically, taking more history courses does nothing for me when I hope to eventually be hired as an English professor (or at least in a position that lets me teach literature). Realistically, history matters most to me when it’s used to exact justice or when we learn our history to inform the path we take forward.

History matters to me when it’s active. For example, the Lemon Project Branch Out Trip.

Last Friday, I was minding my own business while my friend took a call as we walked through campus together. She was getting ready for this three day intensive retreat that was supposed to kick off Saturday morning, and she’d been fielding e-mails, texts, and calls most of that afternoon. All of a sudden, I hear, “Oh…no, it’s okay…I can ask Ravynn or Adam if they’d like to fill in.”

After she got off the phone, she explained that her boss had gotten sick and she needed someone to help her lead the workshop. We did a little back and forth, but eventually, I agreed to do it, since I’d been planning to lead a mini workshop on Black Protest Art as a part of the retreat anyway.

The first day passed in a relative haze, as I did my best to remember names and act like I knew what was going on, but the second day brought almost all of the students out of their comfort zones. In the morning, after I gave my lecture on Black Protest Art, I gave them the opportunity to create something. Considering most education is a merit system which rewards regurgitation over an investment in the knowledge itself, it was no surprise the students were stunned that I had asked them to make something. It took a little pushing, a few quiet one on one conversations, and a little encouragement, but they slowly warmed to the idea. In the end, they spent more time than we’d anticipated sharing and explaining what they’d made, one student in particular was amazingly brave and vulnerable as she shared how her piece reflected her multi-faceted identity.

The afternoon continued to get tougher. The students watched 13th, Ava DuVernay’s documentary on the 13th Amendment, and it was…difficult. I noticed one of my girls disappeared well before the end of the film and wasn’t back when it ended, so I went on a mini quest to find her. When I did, the moment that we shared reaffirmed the reason I wanted to get my Ph.D. I wanted my degree for her. I want my degree so that I can be the professor that understands how hard it is to talk to a room full of white people about slavery and mass incarceration. In that moment, she needed me, a Black woman who had been in her shoes and who could cry with her because I, too, understand how heavy the burden is.

I honestly believe in lifting as we climb with all of my heart.

That moment was so powerful that I immediately cancelled my plans for the following day (I originally only signed up to help run 2 of the 3 day and had been planning to spend day 3 doing community service with the Black Law Students). I instinctively knew I needed to be there all three days.

Over the course of that three day retreat Ari walked them through history and taught them how to make it their own, I explained the legacy of Black expression and helped them create their own, and they learned that the best weapon they have in the fight to be better citizens is each other.

In just three days, they not only made strong bonds, but they completed bystander intervention training, they protested together at a weekly local event called Moral Mondays and created a digital exhibit which explores the College newspaper’s stances on race throughout the last hundred years.

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Lemon Project Branch Out students and facilitators at Moral Mondays; Photo credit: Zack Meredith

This kind of teaching also matters. The kind that engenders a kind, compassionate, empathetic, and creative type of student, whose thirst for knowledge comes from a desire other than an A on the next assignment. This is the kind of history lesson I’d be glad to teach for the rest of my life.

 

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