Week 5: Monuments and Memorialization

As a fully funded Ph.D. student, I have to work an assistantship that the school provides in exchange for my stipend. As some of you may know, this is my second year working on the Lemon Project: A Journey of Reconciliation for my assistantship. The Lemon Project is a multi-pronged approach to rectifying wrongs perpetrated against African-Americans by the College of William & Mary through action or inaction. We do research on slavery and Jim Crow segregation at the College and in the surrounding Williamsburg area, as well as work on the legacies of slavery and Jim Crow; community outreach; and student engagement. Our programming for the community and students includes Lemon’s Legacies Porch Talks, informal conversations about numerous topics; our biannual Drum Circles, a stress reliever event; an annual Symposium, which is comprised of scholars and community members alike; Donning of the Kente, a graduation celebration; and Branch Out, a three-day intensive “trip” in which students produce some type of project based on research about African Americans at William & Mary.

I love the Lemon Project. I love the work we do, how we do it and the community of scholars and peers I have because of my work with the Lemon Project. I particularly love the relationships I have built with students because of their interest in the project; it has been so gratifying to see some of the students that I had on my first Branch Out trip in 2017 now becoming some of the biggest supporters of the Lemon Project on campus.

It is with great pride that I get to take part in another momentous occasion in our campus’ history because of Lemon. When the Lemon Project was created, part of the resolution called not only for the creation of the Lemon Project which would do some of this corrective labor, but also for a memorial to the enslaved at the College. This August, the dream of the memorial finally came to fruition, at least in the first stages. The College announced a contest that will run until October 12th to solicit ideas for the memorial. Anyone with an idea can enter, no artistic skill required.

In an attempt to drum up conversation about the contest and memorial, the Lemon Project recently held a Porch Talk entitled, “William & Mary’s Monumental Moment,” a conversation led and facilitated by the director of the Project, Dr. Jody Allen, and history professor, Dr. Jerry Watkins, III.

Truth be told, I am not one to think much about monuments and memorialization. If I had to guess, I think it’s because they feel so stagnant. Depending on the size, placement and type, monuments can be dismissed and ignored. A monument often feels like an object that you have a solemn moment before, and then move on about your day, utterly unchanged by having experienced it. You can’t carry it with you.

But this ongoing conversation we are having at my university about monuments and memorialization is making me come to terms with what I do think is valuable memorialization.

Personally, I find value in so-called living memorials, like scholarships. At the University of Virginia, I was the recipient of a Ridley Scholarship, named for the first African American graduate of the University, receiving a doctorate in education from the Curry School. While I was at UVA, I was so aware that I was carrying on this man’s legacy. I made sure to learn everything I could about him, I tried to foster community amongst the scholars to make UVA a welcoming place for future generations of students, and I proudly worked for the Ridley Scholarship organization for two years, attempting to bring honor to the name I was representing. Despite having spent considerable time away from UVA, I still consider it one of the biggest honors of my life to have been a Ridley Scholar.

I want that feeling for William & Mary African American students. I want there to be students proudly carrying on Lemon’s legacy, thinking about him every day and recognizing he, and so many others, made it possible for them to inhabit this space.

Of course, you can’t make students feel pride, or a sense of responsibility to a name or a place, but I do feel that living memorials are an effective way to see the fruits of one’s legacy every day.

There was a student at the Porch Talk who felt that in addition to a memorial, we should strive for a building or space memorialized for Lemon, to which Black students and minorities would have access. Again, coming from UVA, where we did have the Office of African American Affairs (OAAA), I think having a space specifically for African American students is integral to their continued success on this campus. It’s not enough to have scholarships to attract students of color to our campus, but we need to have systems in place to support them once they get here.

The conclusion that I have come to is that it is not enough for me to have a physical memorial. I want a physical memorial and a physical space for African American students and a living memorial in the form of scholarships. I don’t think that retribution can fully be paid with a slab of stone. (Just an example; the parameters of the contest make it clear that the monument could be anything.) I don’t think that it is enough to rename a dormitory in the name of a man our school enslaved. I believe those are steps to take and they’re important, but I want us to go above and beyond.

I know that just having a memorial is a huge step for our school; coming on the heels of the College’s apology for slavery, this is their first move forward. I hope that the judges of the contest and our College’s President pay particular attention to the voices of Black students and community members in what they want for this monument and what they want to use it for. This is what everyone has been waiting for; I hope they don’t disappoint.

Fade to Black: A Black Girl’s Guide to Walking on Water

by Micah Watson

In my Best-Man-esq group text, I’m definitely the most likely to be Harper. Of us classmates-turned-lifelong-friends, I’m the dark skinned writer with glasses and a swagger that transcends decades (okay, maybe that last part is Taye-specific). The important and illusive part in that is “writer” (even if I don’t plan on writing a tell-all novel). It’s an identity that I’m learning to claim but has always marked my journey as an artist. My dear friend posed a question to the group, “What do you think you’ll be doing at 35?” Some responded with jokes. Almost all responded with plans of children, jobs, and places they would call home. But for me, in the first days of attending the grad school of my prayers, my attempt to hold back guttural tears while watching this conversation was almost comical.

You see, all I know is that I’m supposed to be a writer. I have desires of being married with kids, repping a city that lets me flourish with my people, and rocking an afro the size of Wakanda. And I know that if I actively love the Lord, he wants to give me the desires of my heart. But the only promise that I’m certain of is that I’m going to tell stories. So far, being an artist is the only thing my heart wants that also seems to align with God’s will. All I want to do is let His promise be enough.

But sometimes I’m really bad at it.

Now that I’m here at NYU, the task of actually writing feels daunting. The pass/fail structure of this magically rigorous course load means that I don’t get praised for being the smartest or the Blackest; my work will have to stand on its own. That’s like learning to love your naked body. Now that I’m here in Manhattan, the task of walking home from my favorite soy chai spot before sunset is frustrating. Singleness is an annoying gift, particularly when I haven’t found a new community to walk and laugh with me through it all. Now that I’m becoming a real adult, I don’t have the external surety that my friends have.

Suffice it to say, I did not succeed in holding back the water works. But somewhere on the floor of my studio, God met me once again in the form of a Kings Kaleidoscope track and a recollection of Truth and reminded me that He’s all the surety I need.

With wavy faith, peppered with facetiousness, I responded that at 35 “I will be somewhere writing and making things, holding on to God’s promise and a dream. Probably somewhere in the US. Learning to walk at Christ’s pace and better at it than I was 12 years ago.”

And yet, I still walk on water like fat-legged toddler.

With my new mantra, courtesy of Transformation Church’s Michael Todd, I’m learning how to “stride” instead of “strive,” meaning that I’ve got to walk at the steady pace that Christ has planned out for my life, instead of strenuously running to make my own moves. The thing about striding, though, is that I have to walk. Like actually keep moving. For someone whose default settings are hyperactive-creative-energizer-bunny and in-my-feelings-debilitated-procrastinator, walking at a steady pace is easier said than done. It takes a particular trust that just because I’m not exerting concerning amounts of energy, doesn’t mean that God ever stopped working on my behalf, stopped loving me, or stopped being the noun good himself. I’m learning how to move within His grace with diligence and even more trust. I spend my days plotting and perfecting scripts—stories of people’s lives and actions towards a greater goal—so sometimes it’s hard not to look at God sideways when he tells me that I don’t get to plot my own. While I’d like to know every turn of my life, the only direction He’s given is “follow me.” He says, “come.” That’s my cue to respond, “yes.” I’m not really an actor anymore, but before these two years are over, I’ll be off book.

And I’m on my way.

Years, maybe even months ago, a text like that, this blow of uncertainty and lie of inadequacy would have kept me down for a few days, if not in my room, at least in my head. The blessing here is that I got up, started my homework (which may or may not have included watching Insecure), woke up the next day, analyzed another TV show, caught up with a college friend (who’s been the blessing that I didn’t know I even needed), wrote a couple of movie pitches, and took a meeting. And not once did I feel like I was out of breath. I didn’t drown.

I finished the day in Sabbath, by taking some time to read from my first Intellectual Lover, Ta-Nehisi Coates. Even in the midst of very real uncertainty, God not only gifted me with a moment of restful floating, but also with cerebral rejuvenation. What I learned from Coates is that writers write, and they read and they stumble. And being the writer that honors my ancestors is going to take curiosity, discipline, and a daily commitment to facing the fears that cause me to question my purpose. I will have to work at articulating my inspiration; that is the joy of the craft. I’m learning that this piece of my journey is about learning how to listen to God, and I mean really listen.

So many times I’ve made fun of Hillsong’s “Oceans” as a white nondenominational cliché. But when they sang “spirit lead me where my trust is without borders, let me walk upon the waters, wherever you may call me” at the church around the corner, I felt that thang. As a young Black woman, the fear of new waters is as real as it was for my ancestors who were crushed by them. Being “twice as good” is and will be a part of my new challenge, but it can’t be the heart of it. Somewhere in the lies of systemic racism, we were told that our value is contingent upon our external success and that our worth comes from proving that we’re not the women that stereotypes say that we are. The weight of that makes it feel like constantly running to shore is the only way that we’ll keep from drowning in a world that doesn’t see us for the complicated gems that we really are. But running is tiring and sea salt was never good for our edges. Walking on water is much more efficient, and peaceful, and scary, and Instagram-worthy, and new. The core of who I am becoming—as a writer, as an artist, as a Black Girl—must be about working towards something that I cannot quantify and cannot see. Walking (not running, sometimes grinding) towards Freedom is mad abstract, but it rests in my soul like an unsettling spiritual. And if it’s true that I wade the same waters as generations of ancestors, then enduring those waters is just as vital. I am committing to letting the Lord shape me into something new, something smelted, something faithful, something fearless, something whole, something ready, through this Atlantic I’m calling New York City.

I’m out of the boat now. Assignments aren’t always easy, because I’m doing things that I’ve never done (literally the whole point), but I know, I mean really know, that I’m meant to do it. In just four weeks, I see my work growing and I feel like I’m closer to hitting my stride. I’m working on a project that feels like a promise and praying for continued sparks of inspiration. I’m approaching my calling as “artist” with specificity, learning how to don my purpose as “writer” with the same internal fierceness as my braided bob.

Now this being a writer thing isn’t just a Dream. It’s the promise that I hold onto as I workshop scripts and eat takeout curry alone. Besides my necessary commitment to paying off these student loans I’m accruing, the real commitment is going to be staying out here in these waters, knowing God wouldn’t put me here without purpose and provision. I’m looking upward and forward, not inward—for His strength is made perfect in my weakness (flex one time God!) I don’t know where the heck I’ll be at 35, but I know that I will have an MFA from NYU and be inside of God’s will and the dreams of my ancestors.

So, how do you walk on water? Girl, I don’t even know. But I’m learning how to trust the One who does.

Week 4: Comprehensive Exam Colloq

Two very important and exciting things happened this week:

First, I had a paper accepted to the Southeastern American Studies Association Conference in March! If you remember the secret project I was working on all spring, this is the fruits of that labor. I’ll explain more as I get closer to the presentation. I am particularly excited because the conference is going to be in Atlanta, a city I’ve never been to and am dying to see.

I also successfully completed my comprehensive exam colloquium. For those of you just joining me, the main purpose of the comprehensive exam colloquium is to meet with my committee members to ensure we are all on the same page about my exams, and to set a date for them. Mine will be April 29-May 3, 2019, with an oral exam on May 9th. As a refresher, you create three fields, one major, two minor, with the major field split into two lists, and you have a professor work with you on a list that represents each field. Altogether, I have four professors working with me; two on African American literature, one on African American History and one on Comics and Media Studies. At the colloquium, you set the final lists and you can’t change them; so at this point, you can officially start reading for your exams.

I have three main pieces of advice for anyone that has a colloquium or some similar meeting before they can embark on the journey that is comps:

  1. READ THE HANDBOOK. I made the rookie mistake of asking my advisor if there was anything I needed to have for the colloquium without reading the handbook for myself. When she said no, I took that as gospel, only to find out that I was actually supposed to have written a 1,000 word intellectual autobiography and a one page description of my dissertation project. Fortunately, there are no consequences to that; I just have to write the two pieces and send them out to the committee via e-mail by Monday. Mostly, I’m just shaken because I don’t think I’ve ever been unprepared for something. I’m working on both pieces now and all will be well but please, please, please, DON’T DO WHAT I DID! READ YOUR HANDBOOK!
  2. ADVOCATE FOR YOURSELF. Again, I didn’t do this and now I have 286 items to read before my exams in April. If you think you have too many texts on your lists, tell your chair and see if they will advocate for you. In an effort to please everyone, I said yes to all the additions without actually thinking through what would be feasible for me to accomplish in the next 7-8 months.
  3. ASK QUESTIONS. Don’t know how the exam is structured? Ask. Don’t know what paperwork you have to do? Ask. Want to know best practices for acquiring books? If your committee has any advice for studying? How many meetings are usually required? Ask, ask, ask. Comprehensive Exams, or Qualifying Exams for many people, mark the end of your professors seeing you as a student in their class; you’ll now be an independent scholar. There are no more syllabi with deadlines and no more required papers. If you want to know how something is going down, you need to ask.

All in all, my colloquium was a good experience. It was mostly my committee suggesting books to add, suggesting that I re-organize my lists and setting the date for the exam. It was also peppered with many compliments about the way that I think and write, which definitely helped my self esteem. Having my committee members all in one room together was great because it gave me a sense of how my oral exam is going to go. I have a low key group with very different personalities and skill sets, but the one thing that they have in common is that I truly believe they all have my best interests at heart. Not a single one of them is going to let me in the room if they think I’m at danger of not advancing to the next stage of my doctoral career. I can tell they all believe in me, and that’s going to sustain me through this process.