Week 7, or Baby’s First Conference

After stressing about presenting at the Southern American Studies Association Conference all week to the point where I couldn’t even enjoy the thought of Spring Break, I was grateful when Thursday finally rolled around. I told myself, “Okay, Ravynn, you just gotta make it through Friday and Saturday, and you’ll be home free.” 

Originally, I was supposed to have class and meetings all day Thursday, but as it turned out, pretty much everything I was supposed to do got cancelled, so my usually jam packed Thursdays were beautifully light–until I remembered I had to finish writing my conference paper.

I can’t even explain why I nearly lost my mind writing this paper. It was only supposed to be a 15 minute talk (which for reference is about 8-10 double spaced pages, depending on the pace of your speech) and yet the thought of filling those empty fifteen minutes with nothing but the sound of my voice and force of my ideas sounded terrifying.

To be perfectly fair, it’s surprising, even to me, how anxious I was about my presentation. Under any other circumstances, I am a powerful speaker. I tend to give moving, emotive speeches. My work naturally lends itself to being spoken, as I write the way I speak with little to no variation. Academically, I’m more comfortable giving presentations than I am writing papers, simply because I’m better at explaining my ideas out loud and teaching them, than I am at writing them down and giving direction. This is probably because I am really good at talking. I love talking; for the most part, a considerable part of what I’m saying is interesting; and I have a charm and wit that makes me enjoyable to talk with.

(I’m not being narcissistic, but I am well aware that I talked my way into more than one award/scholarship/university.)

(I’d probably be a really great politician if politics didn’t actually disgust me and if I didn’t have a tendency to be so dang rude. But I digress.)

I avoided the conference on Thursday, despite my newly freed time, and instead choose to work (to no avail) on my paper. Rather than get discouraged or panicked, I convinced myself that I needed a good night’s rest and I’d wake up refreshed on Friday and finish it the next morning. 

Friday morning, I was definitely calmer, but when 5 PM rolled around, I realized I’d wasted almost the entire day.

Well, actually, it was a really productive and fun day– I just didn’t write my paper. 

Around 9 AM I started to get antsy while I moved individual words around my word document, knowing that people were almost certainly flooding into the education building to hear the first of the day’s panels. Suddenly, I was filled with an overwhelming desire to see what was happening and was hit with the novelty of attending a real academic conference. So I texted my cohort mate to see if I could just go hang around, and at his encouragement, I packed my camera, my journal and my laptop into my drawstring bag, slipped on the first clothes I could find (patched boyfriend jeans and my Howard law sweatshirt) and trekked off to the School of Education. 

I parked on the street, then marched across a field of grass, turned yellowish-brown by winter, that sloped downward, almost hiding the building in an indent in the earth. I remember thinking the space would be beautiful to photograph, especially if the grass turned back to green in the spring. The building itself was relatively new; its huge glass windows sparkled in the late winter sun and the brick had yet to be weather-worn. The architecture was smooth, clean and modern, so unlike the untouched traditional brick of the old undergrad campus where so little has changed since 1693.

I was in no particularly hurry to find anyone, so I took in the grandness of the atrium, the comfortable looking chairs, the outdoor tables and chairs on the patios just outside the building. Before long, I wandered along just enough corridors to find myself at the registration table, where two of my cohort mates sat with another girl, further along in my program than the three of us, chatting happily. 

I registered and received my materials. The program was difficult to read. For some reason, I didn’t understand until that moment, that several panels happen at once during one time slot, in several different rooms. Then, there’s a break, and then another set of panels, and you just have to choose which one to go to. 

So many of them sounded interesting: everything from Native Americans and Buffy the Vampire Slayer to Saint Martin de Porres and “Lemonade” was discussed at this conference. I could barely make up my mind on which ones I wanted to hear. Finally, I decided that I was too late to slip into any of the current panels, but I would wait until the next set, because in the next set there was one I absolutely had to hear.

Professor Harold from UVA would be coming to give a talk on Al Green and gospel music. Yes, I excited to hear the talk, but I was mostly excited to see her, as I hadn’t since I’d left Charlottesville for good last May. I consistently took a “Claudrena class” every year from the time I started until I graduated. I’d never intended to do African-American Studies, always dead set on French and eventually I added Comparative Lit and a Foreign Affairs minor, but every semester, I made sure I had a “black class.” It didn’t matter if it was African-American Studies, or a African-American Literature class, or even African Oral tradition, but I had to get my fix somewhere in my schedule; and as often as my schedule allowed, I took with Claudrena.

Professor Harold had this way of commanding the class. Her material was always interesting, but she made sure you understood why it was relevant. Tests were never hard, and you never had to worry about you GPA at the end of the semester, at least with her–but if you didn’t do that reading, it didn’t take much for her to dismiss you from class. She made you understand that critical thinking was a skill to be honed, not a natural gift. Your natural instinct should ask, “why?” And that we, as Black students, had a responsibility to learn, not just for ourselves, but for our people as a collective. But you also learned not to speak unless you actually had something to say–because she was quick to intellectually drag you, as if to say, “You cannot walk out of my class thinking that is true.”

When Professor Harold rounded the corner to registration, I was so happy to see her, but also filled with a sense of mild regret. At UVA, I’d been so certain I knew the answer to everything. I’d go and ask for advice, that she’d willingly give, only to have me ignore it completely and do almost the exact opposite of what she told me. I’m almost certain she knew the first time she talked to me that I was destined for grad school, and even though she saw me sort of floundering through school, uncertain about anything past May 2016, she never did anything more than give me a nudge and suggest that I do IRT– Institute for the Recruitment of Teachers, a program for aspiring minority professors/grad-students-to-be.

I, of course, went to France instead.

But over the course of the weekend I got to catch up with her, and as I did so, I had a new found appreciation for the professor I’d always admired, and who’d always pushed me. That discomfort I’d felt was growth, and I needed it to get where I am.

I went to her panel and had the opportunity to meet some really cool grad students from UVA. Professor Harold (as is her style) took us all out to lunch. We chatted over cod, fried green tomatoes and beer, while a freak snowstorm raged outside the pub. After lunch I managed to catch most of my “big brother,” James’, panel and was astonished at how smart he is. I sort of felt myself deflate a little, wondering if I’d ever get to that level. Fortunately, I didn’t stay down long. Ari arrrived shortly after, as we were scheduled to volunteer to register participants that afternoon. Instead of going to another panel, I introduced Professor Harold to Ari (well, Ari introduced herself to Professor Harold, because…that’s Ari for you), and she talked with us both for a while.

It turns out that Ari’s mentor at UMichigan, Brandi Hughes, and Claudrena (who is definitely an unofficial mentor) are buds.

I was pleasantly surprised at the revelation, but Ari was moved to tears. The world had become so small for both of us in that moment.

I tapped Ari and said, “You know, in like ten or so years, that’s going to be us!” I gestured to Claudrena, who was texting Brandi and smirking to herself. “We’re going to have students that meet each other and realize that they both had us, and that we’re friends–and it’s going to explain so much about them, and the kind of scholars they become.”

I think she heard me, because she nodded and laughed through the tears, but she might’ve still been crying about Brandi.

Finally, towards the end of our shift at the table, James came wandering by. I’m still not entirely sure how it happened, but an hour and a half later, James, this education doctoral student, Jaymi, and I were engaging in an intense discussion about Chance the Rapper and black boy joy, before James was finally like, “Okay. I GOT to go.” James and I ended up in a corner because I was spilling tea (I’m always gossiping–I need to stop), but it quickly spiraled into relationship advice, which took a left turn into 2016 biopics, Nate Parker (we slowed down long enough to let Jaymi in) and Spike Lee joints. We took a left turn at Lemonade and A Seat At the Table, Beyoncé and Solange, before we hopped right back on the hip-hop highway, discussing Cole, Kendrick, and Drake (to take a quick u-turn at Issa Rae because “all college educated Black girls like Drake,” right?) and finally end up in the Chance the Rapper parking lot.

Sometimes you just reallyyyy gotta talk to Black people.

By the time we’d finished talking, it was starting to get dark out and I’d already stayed an hour later than I’d meant to, and I’d written not a single word all day.

So I went home and decompressed for an hour or two, before I finally pulled my laptop to me and hit a flow.

As I’d watched panels and interacted with people all day, I understood that this was not meant to be a final dissertation presentation. It didn’t need to be the most polished thing I’d ever write. It just needed to be what I was working on, what I found interesting, the threads I’m following, and where I want to go with it. I didn’t need to get in the weeds because, no one was going to test me on my knowledge, they just want to hear what I’m thinking about. They trust me to know my subject. They wanted me to share. 

Around 10:30 that night, I read over my last draft, and satisfied, I fell asleep.

The next morning I woke up much later than I meant to. My panel was at 9, but my panel agreed to meet at 8:45, and I’d meant to get up at 6 so I could practice my speech a few times, and time it. I woke up at 7:15 and hastily walked my dog, nose in my phone, and I mouthed my paper to myself as we went. I made a few tweaks and cut a few lines here and there, but it was still a little over 15 minutes, no matter what I did. At 8:30, I started to print out my paper but OF COURSE when you need to print, your print wants to be possessed. So, mildly panicking, I raced over to the clubhouse at my apartment complex to print my paper at 8:35. At 8:39, I was in my car and at 8:45 I was waddling as quickly as I could over the sloping grass and into the building. 

I fell into the room, out of breath and flustered, calling, “I’m here!” (Because I’m still 5.) 

Ari was already there and was a God send, helping me get my life together in the few minutes before the panel. She fixed my hair and got me a coffee as I set up my presentation on the screen. As I worked, a kindly-looking blonde woman came up to me and introduced herself as the chair of our panel. Pleasantly surprised, I shook her hand– as I understood it, our panel’s chair had triple booked herself on accident and wouldn’t be able to make it. We sort of played a game of “Not I,” and so it ended up that Travis would play chair in our original chair’s absence. (Note: the chair of the panel is supposed to introduce the panelists and keep time of the presentations, giving us notice when we have about 5 minutes left.)

When the clock struck 9, the panel began and I did my best to ignore Professor Harold’s intense look from the back of the room.

Betsy, our chair, introduced us all while we sat at before the crowd and in front of the projector screen. My friends in the crowd gave small, encouraging smiles when my name was announced.

Shana was up first, and Travis, Scot and I, took seats in the front row so we could watch her speak. 

I always knew Shana was brilliant– she has a MA in English and JD and she knows how to use ’em– but hearing her speak was a whole nother ball game. She spoke on “Contested Spaces” explaining the connection between the Black female body, liberty of movement, and citizenship, using both poetry and laws, history and personal narrative, and one bad ass story about Ida B. Wells biting some dude on a train when he tried to forcibly remove her from first class.

Then, Scot showed off some truly impressive scholarship as well as some digital prowess. He essentially created a database to track one preacher from the late 19th century through the early 20th century, finding that he had done some of the earliest traveling civil rights tours and spreading progressive messages through his sermons and journalistic endeavors. He then tracked this man all over the United States AND in other parts of the world on an interactive map.

I was blown.

Travis goes and hits the crowd with a new theory about dispossession and explained how this theory of dispossession would effect displaced communities. In particular, he’s interested in Camp Perry, a military base in Williamsburg, the construction of which displaced over 400 Black families and some white ones as well. He’s trying to figure out what the effects of this process was on the local community, and much of his work is directly impact the people in this community.

Finally, there was me.

Sometime during Scot’s presentation, something in my head clicked. Scot was having so much fun up there. He really loved his subject and his work and he conveyed that love to the audience. It was infectious. It was vivacious. And I realized, I loved my work just as much– and I felt equally as enthusiastic. 

It happened in a flash–I set out my questions about the purpose of Wakanda, explained its critical role in times of crisis. I detailed Black Panther’s origin. I expanded on his first appearance. I linked it to DuBois, Hughes and Stuart Hall. I took it to from the 1960s to the 1990s to 2016. I was confident. I knew my stuff. I knew it was relevant. I loved it.

I barely even noticed Professor Harold taking several pictures… (lol. Professor Harold, if you’re reading this, I’m joking.)

I’d filled 15 empty minutes with nothing but the sound of my voice and the force of my ideas, and I was elated.

Afterwards, I fielded about 3 questions, happy that people were engaged with my work and they’d liked my ideas. One professor from UVA American Studies pushed me pretty hard, but I realized after the panel, it was because she’d really liked my talk, and thought with a little more work and research, my paper could be publishable. 

“And I’d do it soon, if I were you.”

Professor Harold, whose approval is so hard to come by, but so valued if you get it, called my presentation awesome.

I could have died.

I learned something in four years. I proved up there that I’d learned something. And not only did she think it was awesome, she was proud.

The rest of the time I spent at the conference was a blur of happiness. Professor Harold bought me, Ari and Shana a book each from the press stand, and I walked away happily, with a copy of her latest book, New Negro Politic In the Jim Crow South. I danced up to Charlie McGovern, singing, “Charlie! I did the thing!” To which he replied proudly, “Yes, you did!” Our American Studies Grad program took a group picture, and Charlie was beaming, happy that his “kids” had shown up and shown out at yet another American Studies Conference. And I happily departed from Claudrena, with the promise of visiting UVA for a conference soon, leaving to have lunch with Ari and Shana.

My high lasted the rest of the afternoon as I caught up with Micah on a facetime call that felt 20 minutes but lasted two and half hours, then this morning I brought Ari with me to my parents’ church to watch my dad sing in the men’s day choir.

The four of us passed a pleasant afternoon together in Suffolk, bookending a fantastic weekend.

I’m back in Williamsburg now, finally able to relax (for a w h o l e week!), and even though I’ve started to come down off my high,  I still get a little tingle of pride in my stomach when I think about what I accomplished this weekend.

Honestly, grad school is a pain, but it’s weekends and moments like these that give you gas to keep trucking on through.


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