Dissertation Check-In #4: The Council of Superfriends

My usually carefully planned out, weekly grad school blog has fallen woefully to the wayside since March. All things considered, it’s to be expected. Aside from the pandemic and uprisings and the impending election, it’s already difficult to write a dissertation and to sustain other writing projects while doing so.

So Black Girl Does Grad School has taken a backseat this year.

Nevertheless, I’m still here—albeit sporadically.

I’m currently in the editing phase of dissertation writing. I got the bare bones of what I’m trying to do and say down on the page, and now it’s about tweaking and adding and reading more and fleshing out the ideas that I already have.

Sounds simple. Unfortunately, at least for me, it’s not.

Editing is actually the hardest part of writing for me. I think it’s the most valuable part. Much of the diamonds of your thoughts are excavated during editing. The push and pull of working and reworking your writing feels a lot like kneading dough. It’s hard, intense work that requires you to get your hands dirty, and do what looks more or less like destroying your hard work. But if you don’t knead— and importantly, if you don’t let your work sit, or prove, to extend the metaphor— you won’t have much worth showing at the end. It’ll be an underdeveloped bit of mess.

As much as I respect this part of the process, I find it really difficult to do on my own, and with my own writing. Even with feedback from my chair, I still feel rather alone in this journey. The loneliness also stems from writing this particular project about Black girls and fantasy and the digital without having a Black woman on my committee.

Yes, I am aware of how this looks. The truth of it is, when I entered grad school, I knew nothing of the politics of crafting a committee. This was information I learned on the fly. And at that time, a committee didn’t matter much to me, because four or five years ago, when I was applying and starting out, I didn’t know this was the project I wanted. Perhaps a little foresight might have directed me to a different program, with a different set of support systems in place, specifically the hand of Black women scholars.

But I just wasn’t thinking like that yet.

Now I am thinking about these things as I write this creative and genre defying manuscript, knowing in my heart of hearts, that in all likelihood my committee’s not going to get it.

And having to defend my project, and by extension, myself in the process, was enough to paralyze me going forward into edits. I needed to talk to people who would understand, with little to no explanation the why of what I was trying to do as well as the what and how.

So I called a meeting of the Council of Superfriends.

My Council of Superfriends is a collection of Black women I love and who love me from different parts of my life, who all think about Black girls and girlhood in various ways: there’s Dr. Autumn, Black girl literacy scholar and one of my dearest internet friends; Chardé, an anthropology Ph.D. student at my university; Taylor, a theatre artist I met doing Black Monologues at the University of Virginia; and, of course, my filmmaking soul sister, Micah.

I asked them for an hour of their time, to just listen to me try to articulate my project as it exists so far, and offer feedback, suggestions and questions. And as soon as we started, I knew calling this particular group of thinkers together was just what my project needed. More than I needed to be pushed and prodded in my thinking, I needed community. I needed Black women who could show me where the bounds of my own mind were with love and care. They were able to ask the hard questions, and the ones that matter most: if this is a project about the freest manifestation(s) of Black girls’ selfhood, why are you limiting yourself to what you think a dissertation has to look like? Would you even be writing a dissertation to answer this question? Can a dissertation, the way you imagine it, answer this question to your satisfaction? Why did you choose this form? If you’re not planning to stay in academia, why does it matter so much to do this in such a constricting way?

For a project about the potential of limitlessness, I realized I was trapped on every side by everyone else’s expectations. The reason I was feeling so paralyzed by the project was because I couldn’t even imagine what true intellectual freedom would mean and look like for myself under the system that currently exists. And that was the trap. I was trying to fly in a cage. Just because I made the cage bigger so I couldn’t always see the bars, didn’t mean they weren’t still there.

Over the years, I have gotten so good at doing what I want to do inside the lines, inside the cage, that I haven’t truly dared let myself imagine what exploding the lines completely would look like for me. Sure, it’s impressive to be able to do this sort of alchemy within, but that’s not the truest form of my self-expression.

I can’t lie to myself and also do this project.

What a waste. Of time, of energy.

If I’m doing this for who I say I’m doing this for, and if I’m truly doing what I want to do, there is no more trying to fly in the cage.

And in conversation with the Superfriends, Chardé brought up a good point: this is a Hurstonian project. I am a student of Zora Neale Hurston. I am not, nor have I ever been, the only Black woman to find the constraints of the academy and the way things have “always been done,” completely misaligned with my personal mission. I have people I can return to, whose work I can think through and build on, to craft something to ultimately matters to me.

We began the meeting sort of discussing the long standing irritation I have at having to “justify” my dissertation work. I shouldn’t have to explain why my work about Black girls matters: to question that is to question the essential importance of Black girls. And though I didn’t necessarily come to this conclusion in that hour, I did begin to realize that the first step in freeing myself to do this project justice is to stop answering that question. Stop wasting breath on people who need to be taught that Black girls’ lives matter.

It’s time to focus on the questions that do matter, and the people who are asking them.

The Superfriends reminded me who I’m doing this for, and why I’m doing it.

They reminded me that I still have a lot to learn and unlearn and relearn, and that this process is for me. Perhaps this isn’t why other people pursue Ph.D.s, but my project is a labor of love and care.

And it always will be.