All posts by Ravynn K. Stringfield

Ravynn K. Stringfield is a Ph.D. candidate in American Studies at William & Mary. Her research focuses on Black women and girls in new media narratives that are fantastic, futuristic and/or digital in nature. She is also a dog mom, new yogi and hazelnut latte enthusiast.

The Teachability of Legendborn

I’d already rearranged the syllabus for my spring 2021 Magical Black Girls class once– back in June when Bethany C. Morrow released A Song Below Water. It was too good not to teach, especially when it specifically spoke to themes of the violence and silencing Black girls too often endure, the matrilineal nature of our power, and the strength of sisterfriends.

I told myself that I would not be readjusting again, no matter what new thing I discovered.

And then I was able to get my hands on an ARC of Legendborn.

Tracy Deonn pens a modern take on Arthurian legend reimagined as a secret society at a Southern Predominately White Institution (PWI). The protagonist, Bree Matthews, falls head first into this world, and it’s made abundantly clear to her by the others in the reimagined “Order” that Bree does not fit.

Any Black person at a PWI, particularly a Southern one, knows the experiences Bree endures intimately. We know the malevolent administrator who sneers at our presence. We have met the parents who are quick to label us as “Affirmative Action” and believe that us occupying a space on those campuses has somehow stolen something from their children. We have befriended the seemingly innocuous white person, who says something racist and when you call them on it they’re quick to dismiss your retort, saying, “You know what I mean.”

All of that would be enough to make anyone’s blood boil just below the surface, but add to it the depths of Bree’s grief and being thrown into an unknown magical world, where the same essence may have a different name to different people. Where the intersections of experience and history collide in unexpected ways. Deonn seamlessly weaves a tale based in uncomfortable truths about the relationship between Black and white people in the South that span centuries. Though born from those uncomfortable truths, it takes up the strength and power generated by Black individuals and families and shows how we have risen and continue to rise.

For all of that, Legendborn is the rare kind of book that satisfies the appetite of all the various portions of my personality and interests. Most times, it’s a pick and choose type of situation: perhaps you get high fantasy but lack depictions of Black girlhood, or you get Black girlhood but not as the heroine of the story.

With Tracy Deonn’s Legendborn, I didn’t have to choose. I got to bring all the sides of my magic-loving, history-seeking, smart-mouthed Black girl self to the table when I settled down to read a chapter or two. As a Black girl who has spent a significant amount of time at two Southern Predominantly White Institutions (PWIs) with big reputations for both my bachelors and masters/Ph.D. programs, the difficult, conflictual feelings Bree has about Carolina didn’t need to be explained. I understood the instinctual pull Bree felt to a campus that was not built with her in mind, and yet needing to know it intimately because it would bring her closer to a parent.

Reading Legendborn pulled to the surface all the things I didn’t know about my undergraduate institution, but that I learned in great detail at my graduate institution. I spent two years as a graduate assistant for The Lemon Project: A Journey of Reconciliation, my campus’ attempt at making the history of Black people readily available, to bring forth that which the institution would rather hide. In that time, I learned not only about the enslaved people who built my university, but met the Black folks who would much later integrate our Southern PWI, and build with the Black students who still work to make it a better place.

I know the high fantasy is the draw of Legendborn, but it is the richness with which Deonn weaves so much of what is important to me as the backdrop of this narrative. It’s the vibrancy with which Deonn allows Bree to be a Black girl and revel in all the complexity of what that means. Yes, I love the way she has reimagined Arthuriana, I love the strong characters, the elements of the magic that underlies this whole world, but it is the way Bree is simply in this world, whether she fits or not, that makes it near and dear to my heart and what makes it perfectly teachable.

Bree is the result of centuries of racial conflict and the deep love Black women have for each other. She is both softness and hard edges; strength and fragility. She is deliciously human and wondrously exceptional.

That she is all of these things and stunningly magical is a revolution.

It’s legendary.

Requiem For The King

Chadwick Boseman joined the ancestors on the evening of August 28th. It was revealed that he had been diagnosed with stage three colon cancer four years ago, which progressed to stage four, and eventually took him.

Boseman rightfully deserves the most beautiful of elegies, ones that paint a stunning portrait of how impactful his corpus of work has been. As my good friend Kelsey said as we mourned together, Boseman’s artistry bridged past, present and future in a way that was impossible and necessary. He deserves words that reflect this. I, most certainly, am not the one to give it. I didn’t know him.

But I knew Black Panther.


Professor Claudrena Harold introduced me to Black Panther, in a circuitous way. We were having lunch together early in my last year of college, plotting my journey to graduate school, when she asked, “Did you know Ta-Nehisi Coates is writing the new Black Panther comics?”

Professor Harold is not the kind of person from whom you can hide your ignorance; so I owned up to being unaware, and the side eye I received was enough to send me home ready to do a thorough Google search. Fast forward a few months and I had read (and fallen in love with) Between the World and Me, become a Coates stan and was reading old Atlantic articles in my spare time, and was eagerly awaiting the first issue of the new Black Panther.

When the first issue landed in my Comixology account in late spring 2016, I turned the lights off in my dorm room and read the issue under my covers. I wanted as few distractions as possible as I drank in this comic. I emerged with a new obsession, which was only intensified by the announcement of the forthcoming movie that summer.

The film connected the work I was doing at the time as a comics scholar with the work my good friend, Micah, was doing as a film scholar, both of us interested in stories where Black people were centered in the ways we saw ourselves but that white media could not imagine. We both had questions, some answers, a lot of thoughts about what this film could mean, could do, could represent, and we both brought a particular expertise to the conversation. We founded King of the Black Millennials, a short lived blog where we worked out those early thoughts that summer, an endeavor that solidified our relationship as writing collaborators as well as friends.

I entered graduate school in fall 2016 with no sense of what I was doing or wanted to do; in some ways, I came armed with only my love of comics, and specifically, in that moment, Black Panther. So I clung to that. My first graduate level research paper for my Popular Culture class was rather mediocre, but I saw the beginnings of a real project forming. That paper led to my first conference presentation at the Southeastern American Studies Association conference in spring 2017; my first archival trip to work with Black Panther comics at VCU that summer, which became the basis of my Master’s portfolio that I defended that fall.

All that said, it must come as no surprise that the closer the film came, my eagerness grew. I planned out my outfits for opening night months before and secured my ticket for opening night the day they were available. To most of my friends’ surprise, I was firm in my resolve to see the film just once by myself before I saw it with anyone else. They thought it was because I feared I might have criticism; I knew it was because I would sob through the entire film.

When Wakanda unfurled before my eyes for the very first time on screen, I wept.

Perhaps white men had created Wakanda, but Black people had reclaimed it and cultivated this.

In the months after I defended my Master’s thesis, I regularly told my people I was going to take the Master’s and leave. I was uninspired and burnt out. I felt harassed and often patronized in my classes. I didn’t have another plan, but a few days after I had decided I was going to leave my program, a classmate sent me an email. Attached as an article about a Black man who had illustrated Black Panther comics in the 1970s: Billy Graham. Interested, but still unenthused and unwilling to do more research, I clicked it away.

By the grace of God, that classmate brought up the email again in class and directed my attention to the granddaughter mentioned in the article, Shawnna, who currently had Graham’s archives at her home in Williamsburg.

Meeting Shawnna and getting to work in the archives with her for a short while was enough to sustain me for another few months. I never did anything with that research other than write a seminar paper, but I realized after a while, that perhaps that work was simply meant to pull me through. It sustained me. It was what I needed to be okay.


When I first stumbled across the Associated Press article announcing Boseman’s death, I, like most people, thought it was a cruel hoax. It took less than a minute for me to confirm, and moments after that to completely break down. I cried for an hour straight, my heart broken over someone I had never met.

I woke today with a deep sadness settling over me like a weighted blanket. It took most of the day, and mourning with friends, to come close to articulating what losing Chadwick Boseman meant in this moment.

He was our joy. Our superhero. Our king.

Criticisms of the film still stand, but the way Black Panther became a cultural phenomena is unmatched. I had never seen such collective Black joy until the week of the release of Black Panther. It was a reason to celebrate, whether you liked superhero movies or not.

And, boy, did we celebrate.


The specter of Death looms over Black people in a particular way. Our health worries do not only include Coronavirus in this moment, but police violence, domestic abuse, assault, inadequate health care as a result of so many interconnected factors.

Tragedy has come to call again and again and again; its presence is unwelcome, yet it lingers.

We started the year with the loss of a legend, Kobe Bryant, and every day since has been another crisis, another loss, yet another moment that calls for mourning.

But this hit different.

Days after the Jacob Blake shooting, we lost a man who we came to associate with the purest form of Black joy.

It seemed pointed and cruel to lose a King of Joy in a moment that desperately called for any bit of hope.


Chadwick Boseman deserves the most peaceful rest.

To the King.

Four Years, Four Lessons

Today, August 8, 2020, marks the four year anniversary of Black Girl Does Grad School!

 

On this day in 2016, I published my first post, hopefully entitled, “Ravynn Stringfield, (Someday) Ph.D.” I wrote it the morning before I was due to start my first day of training to become an Omohundro editorial apprentice, my first graduate assistantship. From there, I would go on to become the assistant for the Lemon Project, a position I held, and loved, for two years. I left Lemon to serve as a teaching assistant for a film and modernization class and this coming year I will finally get to teach my own 290 course on Black girls and fantasy.

Two weeks after I wrote that initial post and a couple about Omohundro training, I would attend my first grad class. Over the course of two and a half years, I would take fourteen classes: six courses which counted towards my master’s degree (which I graduated with in 2018) and eight that went towards my Ph.D. There were some really fun ones: I loved my Digital Humanities class and Critical Race Theory; I lived for Interracialism and the comics class that I, and a couple of my classmates, begged my advisor to teach. And some were…let’s say, challenging– and not because of the academic rigor.

I’ve come a long way since the first time I used the term “digital humanities” to describe my work in a blog post: from denying what I did counted as DH to taking my first DH class to being wrapped up in a cocoon of love by Black digital humanists at “Intentionally Digital, Intentionally Black.” Then from my first DHSI to consistently proclaiming my identity as a digital human(ist) by showcasing it in my bio and wearing a hashtag on a chain around my neck (Left).

I’ve also come a long way since coursework. Since I finished my last semester in December 2018, I spent a semester reading for comps, I took the exams, defended my prospectus and began writing my dissertation in earnest.

I’m now in my last stretch of grad school, a stretch that could admittedly take a while to get through, but I have faith that everything will work out okay. Four years ago, writing a dissertation was the last thing on my mind as I struggled to figure out how to read at the graduate level, manage my time, and find ways to infuse my work with my own signature flair. But, as I said so long ago:

“But never mind how I got here; the point is, now I’m here.”

So in honor of my four years in graduate school and my four years of this blog, I decided I wanted to share with you four lessons I’ve learned since August 2016:

 

  1. You can chase clout if you want to, but I’d much rather work with someone who cares about me and has my best interests at heart. Picking an advisor is one of the most difficult parts about graduate school. In my early days, I switched about three times, only to land with exactly who they suggested for me to start with. As it turns out, I wasn’t ready to work with her in the early days; but as I matured and figured out who I wanted to be as a scholar, writer and person, I realized I wanted someone who would respect my work as both scholarship and art. Someone who would help me protect my work and find the right homes for it. I found an advocate, and I’m extraordinarily lucky, because some people don’t.
  2. Find your people. And accept that sometimes your people may not be in your program or even at your institution. I have a few folks that I can turn to from my university, but for the most part, when I have graduate school related concerns or need support, I trot to my digital network of peers I have developed over time on Twitter. (Shout out to the Digital Dreamgirls, Allante, Joy and Autumn + so many more.)
  3. Know your audience. Ultimately this advice has saved me so much heartache and grief. The moment I disavowed myself from the notion that my writing had to be all things to all people, I became free. Knowing who you’re writing for, the folks you’d like to serve, can help you focus your work and questions, and also helps you tune out voices who don’t understand what you’re trying to do.
  4. Grad school may be a big part of your life, but it’s not your whole life. You have a whole identity, full of parts who aren’t served or fulfilled by what you do in the classroom or in your research. Make sure you’re tending to those parts of yourself by doing whatever you need to do to feel full. For me, it was yoga, making art, spending time with my family and dog and continuing to write across genres.

*

To all those who have been on this journey with me thus far, thank you.

To all those about to begin their journey, good luck.

And to all: be well.