Category Archives: Ravynn: Act 3

Week 11: A Critical Self-Reflection on my Fighting Spirit

It’s time for some critical self-reflection.

I’ve always been a self-starter, and a little loud, probably to the chagrin of my mom, who had to work at the school where I was always doing something. I distinctly remember mobilizing the entire third grade to sign a petition against soggy cafeteria trays, which in my eight-year-old mind, ruined the sanctity of the chicken nugget. That same school year, I remember coming home determined to write my Black History Month report on the first Black woman involved in civil rights who wasn’t Rosa Parks that I could find: Angela Yvonne Davis. Then, at age ten, I decided that my fourth grade class needed a school magazine. So, naturally, some friends and I organized a bake sale, the proceeds of which went to the annual fair when the plans for the magazine proved too difficult.

By high school I had only gotten louder; spending a great deal of time fighting against the initial structure of the International Baccalaureate (IB) Program in Suffolk, Virginia. As my class would be the first through, we dubbed ourselves “The Guinea Pigs.” I wanted more flexibility (at the time I wanted to do the Governor’s School of the Arts, which I was waitlisted for classical piano, and IB); more class offerings, including an IB music class; and I wanted to keep our IB director, but budget cuts, budget cuts, budget cuts. I spent a great deal of time ranting in our IB director’s office, to my friends, my teachers, at school board meetings, to anyone who would listen. We lost student after student during the pre-IB years (freshman and sophomore year) until we were down to the sixteen that crossed the stage together in 2012.

I used to be loud, I used to demand change, I used to fight hard.

My fighting spirit came and went as I ran the gauntlet that was the University of Virginia (UVA). I spent a year on the Black Student Alliance executive board, and, disenchanted with the bureaucracy and male domination despite the female majority, promptly resigned the summer before my third year. The often hours long meetings in which I had to take ruthless comments, being talked over or ignored had finally taken its toll on me. So I left, determined to find another way to make a difference. To be sure I found ways: I became a leader in the language house community, eventually making my way up to RA of the French House; I took point in helping organizing my scholarship weekend in the spring of 2015 and 2016; I took on more responsibility in my position as an intern in the Outreach Office of Admission; and I became stage manager of a show that was more of a movement, the Black Monologues.

I’ll be brutally honest, UVA beat a lot of the fight out of me. Between the constant pressure to perform, the isolation that came with being the only Black person in many of the classes and spaces I inhabited, and the severe depression that I fought most of my four years there, it was nothing short of a miracle that I made it out of Charlottesville alive. Living there was rough. My class lived through the disappearance of Hannah Graham, the Rolling Stone article, and the Martese Johnson incident. It felt like I spent most of my upperclassmen years at rallies and vigils, condemning racially motivated brutality and sexual assault, then alternatively mourning the loss of classmates. In addition to all of these horrifying events, I, the golden child of Suffolk, Virginia, was learning for the first time what it meant to fail spectacularly at UVA. I will never forget the string of rejections I got my first year there, one after another, until I finally got a rejection in January 2013, which prompted a panic attack so severe I ended up calling the counseling center for an appointment that day.

It’s my third year out of UVA, and I think I’m still undoing some of the damage to my thought processes that happened while I was there. I don’t think I could pinpoint the moment that undid the fight in me, but I know when I recognized how broken I was: when I did Black Monologues. Black Monologues was a salve to my soul, my chance to simply be. To make art, and to be moved by it. To be in a community with Black people who understood me and loved me. Pouring myself into words for the first time in years, building something, saved me. It healed the wound I didn’t even know I had. Black Monologues gave me back my voice, and even amplified it.

Black Monologues built me up just enough to send me into the world armed with at least part of the confidence which UVA had stolen from me. But I’m realizing now, even with part of my confidence restored, I am still not the girl who demanded change from her school board. I’m not even the girl who mobilized the third grade.

Somewhere in that journey, I decided my moves would be in silence; that my calling was teaching and writing, and those would be my contributions. I decided to use my “self-care card” to self-preserve rather than fight back, but this week in particular has me questioning how I feel about that. I don’t know if I like that I’ve become a silent, but engaged observer; intervening only when particularly provoked or when I “have the time.” I consider myself to be strategic with my energy, picking and choosing my battles with care. Mental health wise, it’s been the right decision, but I do have to ask myself, am I being true to myself– am I feeding my spirit?

My tactics have changed and so have I. William & Mary has brought me to the Lemon Project: A Journey of Reconciliation, where I do a lot of work educating people on enslaved labor and Jim Crow segregation at William & Mary. I work with and teach students; help put on programming; run our social media; but most importantly, I learn and share. And when I realized the Academy might not make room for me, I decided to write my way in on this very blog; working countless hours to make sure that BGDGS became a space where Black women could share and fellowship together. I may not be making statements at school board meetings anymore, but I’m still working, moving slowly and intentionally.

Sometimes I wonder if my sixteen year old self would be proud of the person I’ve become.

I think she would be. I’ve taken my fight to paper, armed with a pen. I think she would be glad to see that I transformed my fighting energy into building.

Week 10: #MyMotherWasAComputer: An Overview and Lingering Questions

“My Mother Was a Computer: Legacies of Gender and Technology” was a one day symposium (November 2, 2018) at William & Mary organized by my professor, Dr. Liz Losh. The day was packed from start to finish with smart conversation, witty one-liners, and open-ended questions, many of which I will point to here. The symposium featured three panels (Gender and Programming, Gender and Gaming, and Gender and Online Community), an artist talk with Mattie Brice, Lightning Talks by members of the Equality Lab, and a stunning keynote by Dr. Wendy Chun.

One of the most interesting concerns raised from the Gender and Programming panel was the question of opportunity and empowerment. Dr. Janet Abbate spoke on the ways that we praise the talents of children learning to code, thus enforcing the idea that coding is somehow innate and must be fostered if the talent appears early, but Dr. Abbate reminds us that this is a skill that can be learned at any age. In terms of empowerment, Abbate spoke quite eloquently on the fact that we empower girls to code, but then what? Are the skills that we teach then to be used to serve a narrow demographic? How do we empower? Do we get women in the door and let them change from within or do we empower them as entrepreneurs? As someone with a particularly entrepreneurial spirit, I personally like the idea of providing women with skills to go forth and create their own path. As Audre Lorde says, you can’t dismantle the master’s house with the master’s tools– we either need new tools or to move away from the house and construct a new one altogether. (Lorde, “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House.”)

In addition to Abbate’s concerns about opportunity and empowerment, Dr. Mar Hicks and Dr. Sarah McLennan both spoke about absences in the archives when it comes to finding diversity in the history of programming. McLennan discussed the importance of combing through African American newspapers for information about Black computers, because often those communities new about the work they were doing, and filling in the gaps from there, but Hicks points out that locating non-heteronormativity in the archive is so difficult because a lot of that information was simply not recorded at all.

Mattie Brice’s artist talk was one of the most intriguing aspects of the symposium. I appreciated the transparency with which she talked about her journey to being the game artist that she is– but within that title of artist is the work of an activist, as Brice spoke about wanting to create games that “did the work they said they were doing.” She wanted games that “changed things.” And again, a concern that recurred throughout the course of the day was this idea of Do I stay and change things or do I go? I personally struggle with that issue a lot, particularly being within the confines of the Academy, knowing that this system is not set up for Black women to succeed. (Or at the very least, it’s a system that puts up 500 more barriers between BW and success than it does for white men, but hey, that’s just my opinion.) Sometimes it is so appealing to imagine creating an entirely new path but then I think of my future students and I decide to stick this process out, for me and for them.

In the Gender and Gaming panel, one of the first and biggest questions raised by Dr. Amanda Phillips was, What happens if you center queer women of color in games? And then, Where are the moments of absence in games studies? Again, we circle back to these questions of absence– even in what I consider the most innovate fields of study, such as games studies, we always have to ask ourselves, who is absent and what do we do about these absences? Finally, Dr. Bo Ruberg asked the audience to reclaim “sloppy scholarship,” and what it would mean to do sloppy scholarship as a feminist enterprise. It incorporates the messiness of dealing with things that cannot be easily categorized and what is fluid. There is something so appealing to me about thinking of the ways I can free myself as a scholar, and engaging with “sloppy scholarship” is one way of doing that.

The last panel, Gender and Online Community was intense. From Dr. Dorothy Kim’s assertion that “If my mother was a computer, she was also probably a fascist and a white supremacist” to Alice Marwick’s work on online harassment. In all honesty, I’m still reeling from all the information and connections that I absorbed during that panel. I think most striking to me was Dr. Marwick’s comparison of online harassment to street harassment. It’s a spectrum: it can go from something as “seemingly benign” as telling a woman on the street to smile to full out stalker. I inherently know that the internet and having a public persona can be dangerous, but I am exceptionally lucky to have not been exposed to much internet harassment. My twitter community is as much home to me as my actual apartment. My internet friends are just as important to as my IRL friends. It scares me to think that there’s a potential for someone to destroy that positive internet experience for me through harassment. But it happens every day. Marwick points out that women who work on social justice enterprises are even more subject to this targeted harassment, and as a Black woman who does work on injustice and whose work is more and more becoming public, I now have a nagging fear in the back of my mind.

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Ravynn Stringfield giving a Lightning Talk at #MyMotherWasAComputer

The day’s events concluded with Lightning Talks by members of the William & Mary Equality Lab: Jennifer Ross, myself, Sara Woodbury, Laura Beltran-Rubio and Jessica Cowing. I gave a talk on the Lemon Project: A Journey of Reconciliation and the digital humanities projects that I have worked on with Branch Out students in 2017 and 2018, as well as a preview of what we will be doing for the 2019 trip. I actually got a lot of positive feedback on my talk from some of the amazing scholars I’ve written about in this piece and so I think next time, I will take another step forward and present on some of my own personal work– maybe even a talk on Black Girl Does Grad School.

After a short break, we all reconvened for the evening’s keynote lecture by Dr. Wendy Hui Kyong Chun. What a spectacular piece of scholarship. She managed to weave together the personal and political with the historical and an unapologetic infusion of Korean language and culture. She began with the story of computing’s star figure Grace Hopper and her rejection of feminism and slid seamlessly into the story of her own mother, who was a keypunch operator. Chun spoke of the fact that English proficiency wasn’t required for a successful keypunch operator, only the ability to input data quickly and efficiently. She moved quickly from this lighthearted discussion of her mother and childhood, into a conversation around the Montreal Massacre, which happened during her second year of engineering school. In the chilling narrative, Marc Lepine killed fourteen women in the engineering program and the story around the massacre blamed feminists for the violence and hate, something that tweeters of the Symposium (particularly Adrienne Shaw) have identified as a recurring theme in many tech spaces.

As I reflect on this symposium, I return to the image of Chun’s mother as a keypunch operator. I think frequently of how I can weave my parents’ stories in to my own academic narrative because their stories intersect with my own. In order to adequately explain my interest in visual culture, it’s necessary to know that my father is a transportation planner, and I grew up with a drafting table and special blue pencils that I wasn’t supposed to play with (but did anyway) in our room over the garage. Because of him, I wanted to be an engineer– I went built popsicle stick bridges, drew my own highways and when I got older, built an electric keyboard at an engineering camp. It’s this love of making and building that I think draws me to the digital humanities, but you wouldn’t know that unless you knew my story, which is also my father’s story.

Wendy Chun gave me a model for combining the personal, the political and the historical in a deeply engaging and critical way and I thank her for that. In her talk, she prefaced it by saying she’d never done anything like that and may never again– but in the off chance she reads this, I hope she will. We need those stories.

My mother wasn’t a computer, but thanks to this symposium, I’m more interested than ever in these gendered legacies of technology. Many thanks to Liz Losh for organizing another great event.

Week 9: Redirecting and Expanding Mid-Journey

If you read this thread that I posted on Twitter Wednesday night, then you’re familiar with the story I am about to tell.

Two years ago, I would have told you quite confidently that I was not a digital humanist. My first year of graduate school was established scholars telling me which boxes I fit into: I was a cultural historian, I was an intellectual historian, I was a comics studies scholar, I was a digital humanist. I scoffed at all of them because while I might have identified as a comics studies scholar, that was not all that my work was, and in fact I preferred to self-identify as a literary scholar who happened to do comics. Even though identifying as a comics studies scholar sort of fit, I knew with certainty that I was no kind of historian– which left me with the mystery of the digital humanities.

The first advisor that I was matched with when I came into William & Mary was a Digital Humanist (capital D, capital H). Based on my writing sample, which was an exploration of identity in Issa Rae’s YouTube series “Awkward Black Girl,” I think it was assumed that I would want to come to do digital humanities, media studies and literature– in that order. The truth? That was the only 20 page paper I’d written in English during undergrad so it was the only thing I had on hand to submit. Former French major problems.

During my first advising meeting, my advisor asked me all kinds of questions about long term goals, publications I was hoping to write, conferences I wanted to attend, books and articles that I hadn’t read. I felt so in over my head that the only possible answer was to retreat into the world that I knew and had always excelled in: literature. Instead of diving head first into an unknown that I was attracted to, I crawled back into my comfort zone. I switched advisors, stopped going to Equality Lab meetings and I kept my head down.

I did well in my comfort zone. I did my master’s thesis. It was passable. It was interesting. It was exciting. After I wrote that thesis, however, my energy started to fizzle out. Then came Race, Memory and the Digital Humanities last fall. It was my first time being in an academic space with so many women, particularly Black women, doing incredible work. Watching rockstars like Gabrielle Foreman, Jessica Marie Johnson and Marisa Parham dazzle the audience was the equivalent of watching academic Beyoncés perform. I knew I wanted to be like them, but I didn’t know how. At the time I was still not considering myself a digital humanist; I was an outside observer, a literary scholar come to watch the festivities.

Another year passed. No conference presentations, no talks, no potential publications on the horizon. I told myself that I was just feeling burnt out after my Masters, which is probably at least partially true, but really I was feeling uninspired by my work. I was existing, but I wasn’t excelling.

Enter “Intentionally Digital, Intentionally Black.” I enrolled in an Introduction to Digital Humanities class and my professor urged me to go to “Intentionally Digital, Intentionally Black.” I knew Catherine Knight Steele from Race, Memory and the Digital Humanities and from Twitter, so I knew it would be a good time. Once I got there and was surrounded once again by Black women scholars doing incredible work, I finally started to understand where I fit. I was inspired by the words of Timeka Tounsel and Grace Gipson and their work on Black women digital content creators. I saw work that I could contribute to based on my own identity as a blogger. They showed me an opportunity to work smarter not harder. My former advisor has been telling me from the beginning that my identities as a blogger and a scholar do not have to be mutually exclusive but I didn’t have a model for how I could have them work together. “Intentionally Digital, Intentionally Black” gave me models. Black digital humanities stitched my identities together.

And then I read Steele’s articles on Black women bloggers and for the first time, I finally had a good answer for “who do you want to be in scholarly community and conversation with?” My former advisor told me that half the battle of grad school is finding the communities where you feel supported. That’s what helps you finish. My community is in digital humanities. It’s where I fit.

So am I digital humanist? Not yet, I still have a lot of work to do– lots to read, lots to write, lots to think through. But I’ve decided to redirect, or even just add to, my identity as a scholar. I’m still figuring it out. But for the first time in a long time, I feel confident that I’m moving down the right path. This feels right. It feels both good and hard all at once, but it also feels very, very right.

So hi, digital humanists, it took me a while to realize this is where I belonged but I’m here now and I’m ready to get to work.