Category Archives: Guest Posts

On Graduate School and Loss

by Letisha Engracia Cardoso Brown

Graduate school. Those two words were a tough road for me. I am a young black woman, first-generation PhD, seven months post-graduation. I wrote and defended my dissertation, yet this piece feels infinitely more difficult to write. It’s been a year since we lost you and committing that to paper hurts. I only hope that by sharing my own experience, it reaches someone and encourages them.

I don’t know exactly how to begin, so I guess it’s best to go to the very start. One of my earliest and most vivid memories of you is your first birthday. You were sitting in your high chair, brown, big-cheeked, and smiling at the small crowd and the sugary cake sitting before you. I’d watched you grow all those months before, curious, bright, and the most beautiful baby! The cake was like a puzzle you needed to figure out. You plunged your hands inside and brought it to your cute little face. Perhaps it was the shock of so much sugar at once, but immediately you recoiled; then, like a child, you attempted to taste it again. Baby’s first cake. That’s how I think of you now. That’s how I will always remember you. Curious, precocious, beautiful, bright. That’s who you were. And as I sit to write this now, it’s who I wish you still were. But you’re gone now. To where? I can contemplate and imagine, but I won’t know for certain until I leave this plane myself someday. But wherever you are, I write this for you, little cousin (little sister). I’ll carry you always.

Being in graduate school is a struggle, one that is hard to navigate even in the best of circumstances I presume. As I sit and write this, one year removed from the initial trauma, I still struggle to find the words to describe all I went through. However, I recognize the importance of talking about my experience, not just for myself, but for others as well. So, being vulnerable and honest, here I go:

It was January of what turned out to be the final year of my graduate study. I was in the midst of waiting to hear back from positions I applied for and dreading rejections, as well as the possibility of offers, as those would come with interviews and job talks—both of which terrified me to no end. It was just a few days after my 31st birthday when my phone rang, a call from your dad. There was nothing unusual about that. Your dad was (is) like a second father to me, so I answered hoping maybe for a second birthday surprise. But it wasn’t. Instead, he asked if I was sitting down, told me to sit down, and immediately I felt my heart stop. Rarely does anything good come after someone asks if you’re sitting down, so I’ve learned in my experiences. Unfortunately, I was right. Your dad called to tell me you were gone, that you had hung yourself, that you had died. An instant after the words left his mouth I went numb. I was devastated, disbelieving, heartbroken. You were thirteen years old. Exactly what it was that caused you to leave us as you did remains unclear to me, but whatever it was removed a light from my heart, a light from this earth.

That you could’ve taken your own life is still unfathomable to me, but perhaps it is not my place to understand. Nevertheless, I realize that there is no easy way to lose someone, a child no less, of that I am sure. But losing someone to suicide must be among the most painful. You weren’t my child to lose, you were my cousin, my little sister, but still my love, and I lost you. I lost you at one of the most difficult points in my adult life, and even today, a little after a year later, I am not sure how I am standing.

Writing a dissertation is not an easy feat, at least it wasn’t for me; yet, somehow in the wake of losing you, I somehow had to manage to put words to paper while dealing with the meaning of losing you. Advisors expected chapters and job applications expected responses. Yet I could barely breathe. All I could think about was the you in that beautiful dress, looking as if you were asleep within the coffin. Looking like yourself, but not at the same time.

How could I think about my next steps, knowing that you had taken the last of yours? How could I write, apply, or try, knowing that you’d never have the chance?

So I didn’t. For days I did nothing but cry. Remembering your face, your smile, your laugh. Days went by and the darkness around me grew. I was lost. Deeply and utterly lost. It took someone else to pull me out of the hole I had fallen into, one shrouded in pain, hurt, darkness. But her hand held mine, pulled me back to myself, back to happier memories of you. The you who supported me, the you that looked up to me, made me see things in myself that I may have otherwise missed. So slowly, but surely, I picked up a pen again. Put pen to paper and wrote. I dedicated my dissertation to you, the light in my darkness. My little Elira.

There is no easy way to write a dissertation through grief. The only advice that I can give, the only words that I can say, is that it doesn’t happen alone. Rely on your village, your person (or people) to help guide you through. Remember yourself and what you came to do. Pick up a pen, open a laptop, and let the words flow (even if they don’t make sense). I did. Eventually I found my way in words, using my writing as a way to remember you, as a way to move forward. It wasn’t a smooth process. It was rocky, marred with sleepless days and nights, tears, rewrites, curses, a trip to the hospital for insomnia driven psychosis, and feelings of hopelessness. But I wrote. I went to dissertation boot camp and I wrote. I went to write in sessions with my best friend and I wrote. I punched pillows, and cried for hours, but I wrote.

It was painful. Moving forward. Breathing. It hurt. It still hurts.

But with the help of my village I finished my dissertation, defended it and graduated in July 2018.


30412161_10105763080272873_6484055218454528000_nLetisha Engracia Cardoso Brown is a Presidential Pathways Postdoctoral Teaching Fellow in the Department of Sociology at Virginia Tech University. Her research focuses on social relationships and food practices, as well as media representations of black female athletes. Her work can be found in the South African Review of Sociology and the Palgrave Handbook of Feminism and Sport, Leisure and Physical Education, as well as the online publication The Shadow League.

From Sharde’ to Sharon…and Back: Code Switching in Academia

By Sharde’ Chapman

Like many black women, I am in an everlasting conundrum of how I present myself. From a very early age I, like many black women of a certain age, learned that it was important to be multilingual in a world that has shaped an identity for you, even when it is totally antithetical to who you actually might be. Code switching has become so totally engrained in my day-to-day life, my fluency sometimes shocks me. I live in a constant tension between my innately black girl-isms and respectability politics-laden persona that is often reminded that I better not embarrass my mama in public.

My post-secondary career has been spent in majority white spaces. From Memphis, to the UK and cross-country, I have chosen to receive my walking papers from three, that’s right, three predominantly white institutions. This includes my short stint as an Oxford student. I am no stranger to being one of few, if not the only, chocolate chip in the batter. I have been made deeply aware of the importance of the social and political transcript of these white spaces, and how to navigate my way through the miry waters of whiteness and privilege. I purposely shape this like an epic journey because, for many black girls in academia, it is. Knowing how to stay in your lane and drag the “angry black woman” back when cans of whoop ass are totally warranted is treacherous work. It is also exhausting as fuck. I saw a statistic that said that only 3% of professors are African American women; only a little over 1% full professors. And, per usual, the stakes are amazingly high when you are a black woman in these spaces, on these campuses, teaching these classes.

Even in my own program, I am the only African American (woman) in my cohort. The differences of experiences, expectations, and seriousness with which I can be taken are staggering. I would not call myself a product of the hood, but I was definitely no stranger to it. My nerdiness, penchant for the arts, and a single black mother that was hell bent on me being well-rounded meant that I have always been a marginal black girl. I do not care for conflict or naturally speak in total African American vernacular. I have many times been accused of not being black enough by peers while also struggling to not be the “token black person” in spaces where I was indeed the only one. Code switching became the link between the two. I “Knuck If You Buck,” but also play Handel’s “Messiah” every Christmas without fail. Going into higher education, we realize that that we will walk on eggshells so that we do not offend or intimidate anyone. We soften our tone, lower our voices, and imitate the inflection of our white female counterparts. Unlike my white colleagues, I am just as versed in the dead white “classical theorists” that they work with, as well as the scholars of color that are actually important to my work studying black people. I have heard my colleagues say things like, “Maybe slavery wasn’t that bad,” and question the value of studying African Americans as a discipline. I have even had professors ask me what black people were writing in the nineteenth century after looking at their white washed syllabus. These are the realities of my PhD journey. In these moments I have had to choose silence, or measure my words with such intention when my Baldwinian level rage was near boiling over.

To be a black woman in the academic space means that Sharde’ must don the plastic smile of Sharon to address her colleagues. It has not escaped me, the aesthetic choices that I may have to make as a I draw closer to being on the job market. My waist length kinky tresses and nose hoop may have to be tamed into a more user-friendly version of itself. I will have to put a lot of effort into folding myself into a box of acceptability just to be given a chance despite the undoubtedly impressive CV that will precede me. Academia attempts to continue to surreptitiously code black women’s bodies, bending them so that they carry far more weight than they are supposed to. We are encouraged to play ball until we get tenure and are free to do our own thing ;to study things that have “value” while also knowing more than almost everyone in the room that lacks any melanin.

With this kind of reality the question becomes: how do black women survive the process? In reality, all of us do not. My mentor did not finish her doctoral degree because the strain was entirely too much. One of my dear friends did not survive the process either. I am barely hanging in there many days, but six years in, my support system and my pride won’t let me quit. In fact, it makes me push back against the boxes that I have, at many points, dismembered myself to get into. Code switching has become a weapon for me to do that. Being able to easily change languages has made me a dynamic lecturer because I remember that the lessons are more important than the words. The mask may hide the rage but it also forces me to figure out better ways to mobilize it in my work. Ultimately, it always make us miles smarter than many and most in the room. No capes, just weapons.


Rev. Sharde’ Chapman was born and raised in Orlando, Florida. Currently she is pursuing a PhD in Religion with emphasis in African American Religion. Prior to pursuing her PhD she earned a Master of Divinity from Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, Virginia and a Bachelor of Arts degree in Religious Studies from Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee. While in Memphis, she was also a student at Lincoln College, Oxford University in Oxford, UK. Sharde’s research interests focus on the forms and function black non-traditional religious spaces. Sharde’ is also an ordained minister in the Baptist church.

As she pursued higher education she has been a child literacy advocate and educational trainer through the Children’s Defense Fund Freedom Schools Program. Sharde’ also shares 31 countries worth of travel insight and her self care journey on her website shardesearches.com.

Fade to Black: Double Consciousness/Double Grace

Aristotle and I have a…difficult relationship.

On my second day of class, after being assigned to read Aristotle’s Poetics, I was asked my opinion on the work. My response: F**k this white man. If you know me, I know what you’re thinking, “Did Micah just cuss!? Micah neverrrr cusses!” I was just as shook as you are and actually cried later because I felt like I didn’t rep Christ well in that moment. In reading that text, I felt like so much of the work that I love was erased, dismissed, and undervalued. Poetics is regarded as one of, if not the most, important texts for dramatic writers. Something scared me and angered me that this was the only measure by which my work might be judged. But if the tongue is a reflection of the heart, then that moment scared me even more.

So let’s call this my heart check.

Truth is, I don’t actually hate Aristotle. I hate the idea that writers are expected to worship this white man who presents only a limited perspective on storytelling. But if I’m being honest, he has a lot of valuable things to say. I also don’t hate rules—I just hate the systems of supremacy that create them. I mean, who am I kidding? Is there a film that follows three act structure more closely than Love & Basketball? Is A Raisin in the Sun not a Well-Made-Play? Does every episode of A Different World not have two turns and a comic block?

I think that I’m neither the artist that Aristotle nor Amiri Baraka would have hoped for. Horizontally, I’m somewhere in the middle, and vertically, I’m climbing deeper into my soul with every piece of art I make.

My verbalized disdain for Aristotelian ideas is rooted more in a desire to be seen, to be understood. If you can’t see my melanin infused middle ground, then surely you can see the polar opposite of something you’re already familiar with. Like in my middle school days, there are moments when I coon myself into visibility. And it’s a really bad classroom survival tactic. It crushes my intelligence and light under the foot of the white gaze.

It’s a tactic born of insecurity and also very real frustration. Let me be clear, I may have moments of being combative, but I am always substantive (at least I try to be). In his seminal work, The Souls of Black Folk, W.E.B. DuBois coined the term “Double Consciousness.”

“It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness, an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder. The history of the American Negro is the history of this strife- this longing to attain self-conscious manhood, to merge his double self into a better and truer self. In this merging he wishes neither of the older selves to be lost. He does not wish to Africanize America, for America has too much to teach the world and Africa. He wouldn’t bleach his Negro blood in a flood of white Americanism, for he knows that Negro blood has a message for the world. He simply wishes to make it possible for a man to be both a Negro and an American without being cursed and spit upon by his fellows, without having the doors of opportunity closed roughly in his face.”

Growing up in middle America, then attending a PWI for undergrad, Double Consciousness has always been a part of my life (as it is for most Black people everywhere. Thx yte sprmcy). But this idea has never felt so poignant as it does in my first year of grad school. Let me share some scenarios:

When you say that your film is Black Film A crossed with Black Film B and hear crickets in the room, but somehow everyone has seen that obscure Czech film from the 70’s; When you spend more time discussing a white woman’s view of Black womanhood than a literal play by a literal Black woman about Black womanhood; When your professor tells you that your play is, in fact, not a play, because they’ve read none of the seven+ plays that you’re drawing inspiration from.

And here’s the catch, you are expected to know the works of white artists, established or emerging, like the back of your hand. Double Consciousness means double the work. Black artists, there are [at least] two canons that you have to know. The Black one that gives you life, speaks to your history and your soul, and the white one that gets you audiences and a degree. And let me add these massive caveats, you are no less Black if you are inspired by white artists and this is much more complicated than this binary. But for me, it’s a matter of creating within two worlds. It’s something that I’m going to have to reconcile as long as I’m in grad school, if not for the rest of my artistic life. What does that look like in the classroom? Being silent or invisible or being loud and hyper visible? Often it feels like a deadly combination.

I went for hyper-visibility again.

Recently, I had an assignment to bring in a produced scene (something that you’d be able to see in theaters or on tv), along with a script of that scene, so that we could compare the two as a class. After almost a semester of doing this exercise, I got tired of being one of the only people that’s never seen a given white-people-famous clip. I wanted to bring something that excited me, that I was familiar with, was helpful to my process, and reflects the kind of work that I want to make. So, I brought in Kahlil Joseph’s good kid m.A.A.d city film—which was originally a dual channel projection piece—and the lyrics to Kendrick Lamar’s “Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst,” from the good kid album—which Lamar calls a short film.

It’s one of my favorite films and Kahlil Joseph is certainly my favorite director. But if I’m being honest, the very real creative and academic benefits of unpacking a piece like that were accompanied by some tongue in cheek. (And if it wasn’t already clear, I wore my Toni Cade Bambara t-shirt). But I was scared. Like actually so nervous my hands were shaking and I was talking faster than I already do. I over-explained myself because I wanted it to be clear that I had receipts. Black Girls ALWAYS need receipts. Sometimes it feels like that’s the only way that anyone will listen, let alone take us seriously. Then we read and watched the clip.

And it was okay; I was okay.

People shared thoughts, asked questions, offered alternative interpretations. One kid even challenged my interpretation of Kendrick’s album. It felt like most of my fellow artists were there with me. Like even those who may not have understood at least cared and valued my right as a fellow learner to discuss the things that matter to me. I didn’t have all of the answers, but I also felt less naked and alone in the classroom than I have in a while. (Is this my Randall Pearson moment?)

So @God, thank you.

For the courage to bring in something that felt like a piece of myself and who I want to be. For the conviction that Black art does and has always mattered. For confidence in You that reminds me that I deserve to be seen. Jesus, You’re the light at the end of the tunnel.

To all my Stage-D-Cadets, thank you for engaging in a real way. Know that for your Black (and other POC…but we’re talking about Black Girls here) classmates, that’s a real gift. It was the first time that my voice felt fully present in the room. It felt like I wedged a little path for myself and my work in this program.

And for my Black Girls pursuing or thinking about pursuing an MFA, a few proverbs for your edification:

  1. Be your bold/beautiful/Black/brilliant self. As artists, we come to institutions in search of instruction, refinement, and mentorship. But what they can’t teach you is your soul, your imagination. It’s easy to feel like making something “good” means adopting their structures and losing your spark. That’s just not true. I’m of the opinion that an MFA program shouldn’t be a factory of cookie cutter artists. Be humble and eager to learn, but also be the master of your own art.
  2. Protect your spirit, your work, and your seeds. Some folks like to call this “guarding your heart.” I’ve come to find that that’s about more than not leaving yourself vulnerable to damaging relationships. That thing that makes you excited? Maybe that’s not the thing to get in a heated debate about. Maybe your idea is so dope that they can’t understand it yet. Maybe that seed of your next masterpiece needs time to grow before it’s pruned. I know I’ve walked away from many a writing class feeling physically ill and disoriented because the experience of having something so dear to me be ripped apart was lowkey traumatizing. My ideas are my babies. That’s not to say that you don’t need the criticism (trust me, girl, you do. You’re incredible, but not perfect, so you better get your money’s worth), but you need to know the proper time for it. Give yourself time to love what God dropped in your imagination. Because if you don’t, who will?
  3. Do the work. I know you’re mad that Susan in your film class has never heard of Julie Dash in her life, but looks at you sideways when you haven’t seen the 17th Rocky movie. But, to paraphrase Ravynn, we have to be the artists to get these degrees so that a Black Girl ten years from now doesn’t have to fight for professors to value her sources of inspiration. You are going to be tired, you are going to be frustrated, but these trials come to make you stronger. This is really a note to self to double down on my commitment to doing double the work, so keep me in check, y’all. Capital F freedom is too important for me not to be the best artist that I can be. I like to think that someone down the line will be happy that I did.

For any of this to work, my heart’s gotta be in the right place. I pray that God’s Kingdom come, that reconciliation would be real, but sometimes wonder how much I mean it. Is my armor more valuable than my healing? Well, sometimes I make it that way. How can I defend my voice and the tradition from which I come without sacrificing my mandate and desire to show love to literally everyone? That’s a struggle every single time I walk into the classroom or share my work. But if my journey is hard and my consciousness is double, is it also not true that Christ reconciled this conundrum on the cross? (spoiler: that one is in fact true). I don’t have all of the answers, I’m finding pieces of them everyday. As for me and Aristotle’s relationship status: it’s complicated. But, in the last weeks of my first semester of grad school, I’m finding enough hope to know that the journey of making this art is worth figuring out this whole Black Girl thing.