“When we see water, we see death” | Wash Day, 1955 Recap

In lieu of a traditional blog post, this week’s episode of Black Enough, “Wash Day, 1955,” necessitated a break down. The spoken word poem, performed by Micah Ariel Watson herself, includes deep currents of history that bridge to the present and beyond. So in the spirit of weaving, I have annotated a piece of the spoken word, complete with links and as always, further reading:

When we see water, we see death.

400 years of life flashing before your eyes.

400 reasons to stay on the shore:

We are currently commemorating the 400 year anniversary of enslaved Africans being brought to America. As a graduate student living in Williamsburg, Virginia, I know the anniversary is heavy on everyone’s mind: from student work commemorating the occasion to the Association for the Study of Worldwide African Diasporas conference which was recently held in the city, we are actively looking for ways to pay proper tribute. One of the most compelling lectures I’ve heard about the difficulty acknowledging Black people in the Historical Triangle is Mark Summer’s, of Jamestown Rediscovery, talk, “The American Heartbreak.”

Reason number one too many bones dissolved into dust on the ocean floor

Reason number no one ever asked us to climb aboard–

They took is in droves too tragic to count into waters

In the “Further Reading” section of this post, I have listed several monographs, particularly those by Black women, whose histories of enslavement have been critical to my understanding of the Middle Passage and beyond. These readings include: Scenes of Subjection (Hartman), Saltwater Slavery (Smallwood), and The Price for Their Pound of Flesh (Berry).

Reason number $5.59 for a box of Dark and Lovely

I worked too hard for my respectability to get it wet

As Tanisha C. Ford discusses at length in the chapter, “Jheri Curl,” from her book Dressed in Dreams, hair has been used as a vehicle to communicate one’s politics, as well as communicate one’s identity.

Reason number twelve million stolen dreams

“What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up

like a raisin in the sun?

Or fester like a sore—

And then run?

Does it stink like rotten meat?

Or crust and sugar over—

like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags

like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?”

 

Langston Hughes, “Harlem”

Reason number 1619, the beginning of being drowned by the land of the free

Reason number 1896 brings us to reason number 2 separate but equal fountains that said my water was inferior

 

Watson calls back to the Plessy v. Ferguson case of 1896, which established “separate but equal,” legalizing segregation. Despite the order to have equal facilities, Black facilities were poorer and lacked support from the government.

Plessy vs. 6 shots fired in Ferguson

Vs. “I don’t even let my son play with water guns.” for fear that it might kill him

This smart line references both the fatal shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri in August 2014 and the shooting of Tamir Rice, a 12 year old Black boy, whose crime was to be holding a water gun, later that very same year.

Reason number this ain’t old news

Reason number 1955

We found Emmett Till’s body in the Tallahatchie

Emmett Till was a 14 year old Chicagoan visiting family in Mississippi the summer of 1955 when he made the mistake of “offending” a white woman. Shortly thereafter, he was found horribly mutilated in the Tallahatchie River. His mother, Mamie Till, insisted on an open casket funeral so that the world could see what white men had done to her child.

So you can miss me with that Mississippi Wade In The Water

It’s already been troubled

The Negro spiritual, “Wade in the Water,” includes the line: “God’s gonna trouble the water.” I’ve included a link to an Alvin Ailey dance performance to the song because something about the movement and the song together pierces my soul, and I think it might be impactful for you.

So why on earth would we surround ourselves in something that we can’t even taste?

I mean if Flint was the only water you H2knew, wouldn’t you be afraid to drink, too?

Let alone immerse your whole body into a lead poisoned pool.

 

Flint, Michigan has been without clean water since April 2014 and has birthed the rise of young activists such as Mari Copeny, whose childhood was disrupted by water crisis.

When we see water, we see death.

*

Further Reading:

*The 1619 Project in the New York Times, August 2019

*American Heartbreak, Langston Hughes

*Saltwater Slavery: A Middle Passage from Africa to American Diaspora, Stephanie E. Smallwood

*The Price for Their Pound of Flesh: The Value of the Enslaved, from Womb to Grave, in Building a Nation, Daina Ramey Berry

*Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America, Saidiya Hartman

TA’ing: Revisited

Earlier in the semester, I wrote a post about how TA’ing this semester burst a little bubble of hope I’d had for having the freedom to run a classroom how I wanted. Then, I started to find that I loved helping students with their writing— an arena that I did have some say in. And as we neared the end of the semester, I began to rave about how great my students are.

Given my evolving view of TA’ing, it’s time to revisit the matter. I think the issues I pointed to early on, like feeling relatively powerless and made to be the extension of the professor of record, are still valid. But in the weeks that have passed, no matter how tired I am when I walk into the room just before my Friday 9 AM discussion section, I always leave around noon feeling rejuvenated.

My students do that for me.

And there are specific things that make TA’ing/teaching super valuable for me. First, I love office hours. I love getting to spend time with students outside of the confines of the classroom. Office hours is my chance to really laser focus in on their strengths and passions, and guide them in that direction. I get to bond with them over things that we can’t/don’t talk about in class– like “The Ham Cam” or afrofuturism or the MCU.

Second, I genuinely love teaching writing. The ability to effective communicate to a struggling student what makes a tight paper is not innate; it is a learned skill, a muscle I have actively flexed over the course of the semester. I have even developed a little formula for a strong paper:

Ideas + Structure/Flow + Mechanics = “A” Strong Paper

I have learned to be able to identify which piece a student is stumbling over and give them pieces of actionable advice that will make their writing stronger. For strong ideas, I like to ask students what did they care most about during the semester. What are they passionate about that’s a theme across their other classes? Can you make them work in harmony? For writers that are already strong, I try to encourage them to stop writing papers that they think I or the instructor of record will like. If you have a good idea and it’s convincingly supported, that’s all I’m interested in. I would rather students write something they care about, that might lead to more inquiry down the road, than churn something out with the sole purpose of impressing me. That said, I do understand that in a lot of ways, that is the nature of the beast. Writing in undergrad tends to exist for the student and the professor and I’m not sure I like that. I’m not sure belaboring this audience of one is the best way to ensure strong pieces. (But I’m always up for new pedagogies!)

For strong structure and flow, I like to encourage them to think of each individual paragraph as its own mini essay. Have a topic sentence, support your claim, and make in clear how we’re jumping from point A into point B of the next paragraph. I also suggest reading the essay backwards, paragraph by paragraph. This ensure that each piece says what you want it to and then you might realize it belongs in a different space in the essay. Strong outlines are also critical to good essay writing, or at least some preparatory work. Finally, revise, revise, revise. If you have the time, try to get someone else to take a look at your work. This is where the Writing Center can be a crucial tool!

For mechanics, similar to structure, the best advice anyone ever gave me was from my French major advisor. I consistently earned A-‘s on my otherwise very good papers– because I honestly sucked at grammar. He suggested reading my essays backwards, sentence by sentence. It prevents you from worrying about the flow, and you have to slow down enough to make sure each individual sentence makes sense by itself, without the context of the sentence before. This method will also help you catch redundancies in your prose, which you can then replace with stronger, more effective words.

Finally, I love that I have created a classroom environment, despite all the constraints, that leave my students wanting more. I mentioned on Friday to my second class that we had one more session together after break and one person said, “Aw, that’s so sad.” I was sad, too, to be perfectly honest, but I masked it in jokes. As another person was leaving, they asked about future courses I would be teaching. In that moment, I realized that I had done what I set out to do. My students were encouraged; I had helped to foster their already present love of learning; and they now trusted me to take them further.

I almost cried.

This was far from easy. TA’ing actually took up a lot of of my time. Between office hours, prepping for class and discussion section, reading drafts, appointments, and grading, I easily filled 15-20 hours with work a week. I had very little time to work on my own writing, including a fairly urgent article draft, my prospectus and now my dissertation. I was/am always tired

But I wouldn’t take it back. Honestly, it was fun.

And I can’t wait to do it again– on my own this time.

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.