Taxing Labor, Energizing Work

My relationship with academia is fraught. The years I have spent in graduate school have been filled with intellectual epiphanies, community building in digital spaces, and a lot of time to search for answers to my long list of questions. Instead of answers, I have often found more questions. Some have been intellectually generative, and push my scholarship further; others underscore the limitations on freedom in academia for a Black girl. 

As a result of time in the academy and currently participating in more service work than I ever have, the questions I have become more urgent and constitute a fairly constant refrain in my mind: Why is my institution, and many across the board, unable to retain faculty of color? Why are we unable to fund diversity efforts and support our contingent faculty? Why are non-tenure track faculty, staff and graduate students’ voices and opinions shunted to the side, as if only tenured professors and students make up a campus? If we know that something (like hiring practices or tenure and promotion, for examples) can reinscribe hierarchies and oppressive systems, why do we continue to prioritize meeting those expectations? Why do we (as an institutional body) still think talking in circles around issues is moving us forward? 

The longer I am here and the more I do, the angrier I get and the more I want to do— and then don’t. Being in academia is a never-ending process of seeing an issue… and then going to seventeen meetings about it, and at the end of which, everything remains the same. It’s made me jaded, it makes me resentful and it will likely make me pursue a career outside of the academy. 

I think often about Toni Morrison’s statement about the function of racism is to distract you. At Portland State University in 1975, she said, “The function, the very serious function of racism, is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being.” Well the fact is, racism is keeping me from doing my work, making me tired and all I want to do is rest. In short, it’s doing its job, it’s doing it well, and I am, unfortunately, failing to continue to muster the energy to do anything about it.

I’m torn between wanting to keep working and doing and hoping that maybe I can do something, anything, to change the culture of the institution, but at the end of every meeting, I am exhausted. Not just exhausted, I am often near tears. My therapist, bless her, is likely at her wits end with me signing onto our sessions already crying. Many Black folks and people of color in the academy build up a tolerance for institutional bullshit, but I am still green. Every time someone raises their voice, I bristle; when I am talked over, I feel defeated; when (white) folks express shock that I could have a useful idea, I scowl; when they compliment me on my well formulated responses, I hear “articulate” and cringe because, of course, I couldn’t be. And I am TIRED. 

And I just started.

This is taxing labor, labor that I pay for with my time and energy and tears.

It keeps me from what I find to be energizing work: teaching, workshopping, and collaborating. 

I recently had the opportunity to speak with Stanford’s Black Studies Collective. This hour long conversation with the students was electric: we built off of each other’s energy, traded tips, offered advice, and enjoyed this moment of congregation together, filled with smiles and laughter. This work can be joyous. It can look like discussing the myriad of ways to translate your research into publicly consumable knowledge, it can look like helping folks think through the ways they organize themselves to get the most out of their day, it can look like explaining how I learned to fly.

I find that this work is most joyous in community.

This is why having collaborative aspects of my first course is important to me. For their introductory/get to know you assignment, I had my students contribute at least one song to a collective and thematic class playlist. I wanted to get a sense how they are thinking about the intersections of Black girlhood, fantasy and digital culture, what sorts of considerations and questions they will bring to the table and offer an opportunity to begin working together towards a shareable product. Building together helps me feel like I am contributing something. I am no longer just interested in making the space, but I want to play in the space I’ve created to see how we can construct the impossible. 

That feels like energizing work, soul fulfilling work. 

And the Academy makes it as hard as possible to revel in the joy of communal building with my students, peers and other faculty and staff. 

I want better for us, and I will be completely honest, I don’t know if I’m the person to be a part of the move towards tearing down what no longer serves us and in its place, crafting a better university. Just from my special combination of mental health issues, if I can avoid stressors as a way of keeping mood episodes under control, I will. I sacrifice my health to fight as hard as I do. And I want so much better for us, but I only get one life, one body, one me. 

And while I want better for us, I also want better for me. 

I don’t have an answer. I may never.

What I do know is that I got to look at a screen with a lot of Black faces on Friday, all eager and ready to learn from me and each other. It was joyous. And it keeps me going. 

They keep me going.