Category Archives: Ravynn: Act 3

“Enjoy the Process”: Notes from My First Week of Full-Time Comps Prep

While my semester got off to an exciting start with the Computing for the Humanities Bootcamp and Branch Out 2019, once those workshops were over, I realized there was nothing standing between me and my comps preparations. So I took a couple days after Branch Out to rest up, then mentally steeled myself to dive completely into comps.

Since about last Thursday, I’ve read a lot. I read Sami Schalk’s Bodyminds Reimagined and LeRoi Jones’ Blues People; I read Octavia Butler’s Kindred and Sam Greenlee’s The Spook Who Sat By The Door; I even read The Narrative of Sojourner Truth and Ishmael Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo. I also read a number of poems by Paul Laurence Dunbar, Rita Dove and Langston Hughes, as well as chapters from Safiya Noble’s Algorithms of Oppression, Simone Brown’s Dark Matters: On Surveillance of Blackness and Anna Everett’s essay “Have We Become Postracial Yet? Race and Media Technology in the Age of President Obama.” I’ve been reading like I’m dying of thirst and books are my only cure.

Ultimately, with 117 texts left to read and 93 days to read them in, I know I have to stop reading every single word. But as much as grad school has tried to break me of my love for reading, and as much as comps is essentially academic hazing, this past week of doing nothing but reading texts and then writing about then for notes has actually renewed my love of the written word. I know not all of what I will read will be beautiful, I know not all of it will be life changing– there will inevitably be texts that I don’t like– but this week, I did manage to fall in love with a few texts.

A Voice From the South, Anna Julia Cooper

“When, looking a little more closely, I see two dingy little rooms with, “FOR LADIES” swinging over one and “FOR COLORED PEOPLE” over the other; while wondering under which head I come…” (p. 96)

I thought my love of books published by Black women in 1892 began and ended with Ida B. Wells’ Southern Horrors. Sometimes, I love being wrong. AJC was tackling the intersections and complexities of Black (Southern) womanhood long before there was the word “Intersectionality” to put in your twitter bios. (No shade, no shade). I’m definitely late to the AJC fan club and the importance of her writing, but I’m here now! Cooper had me laughing out loud at her quite frequently present shade and sarcasm. For example:

“Above all, for the love of humanity stop the mouth of those learned theorizers, the expedient

mongers, who come out annually with their new and improved method of getting the answer and clearing the slate: amalgamation, deportation, colonization and all the other actions that were ever devised or dreampt of.” (p. 171-172)

She said it, not me.

Her soapbox is the education of Black women– no, not even the education of Black women, but her insistence on the existence of Black women and thus catering towards our humanity. We aren’t doing any service to our race, she insists, by ignoring Black women. We are a critical part of the population.

If there was any doubt that Black women have always been doing the work of liberation, one need only look to Anna Julia Cooper.

“If she the G.O.A.T. now, would anybody doubt it?”

-Janelle Monae, “Django Jane”

Superwomen: Gender, Power and Representation, Carolyn Cocca

Carolyn Cocca is mainly concerned with the project of representation of women in (transmedia) comics. She covers it all– the good, the bad, and the ugly. Her chapters on figures such as Wonder Woman, Batgirl, and Buffy (among many others) are proof that women characters can have varying representations in comics and on screen, but a lot of that representation is unfortunately tied to sales and who on the artistic and editorial team is willing to, as Kelly Sue DeConnick quips, “pretend [women are] people.” (p. 220) Cocca is also deeply interested in the connections between representations of women in comics in particular with the second and third waves of feminism. And naturally, with discussions of power come questions of race and heternormativity, questions I believe Cocca handles with care.

And yet– and this is no fault of Cocca’s excellent text– I found myself wanting more of this type of analysis but about Black women in comics, Latinas in comics, Native Americans in comics, Asian Americans in comics. I think Deborah Whaley’s Black Women in Sequence is an excellent text to read in conjunction with Cocca’s book, because it fills in the narrative gaps I was feeling, at from the perspective of Black women.

What this book gave me was a desire to produce more content by and for Black women in the comics realm, so much so, that the first thing I did after close the book for the last time was open a document and start writing my first comic book script, a fantastical/superhero narrative starring two best friends, one African American and one Afro-Latina. I don’t know if anything will ever come of this story, but it made me feel emboldened to create the story I know I would have wanted to read as a sixteen year old.

And at the end of the day, in my mind, if a book doesn’t make me want to write, then it didn’t speak to my soul.

Thank you for speaking to my soul, Carolyn Cocca.

Iola Leroy, or Shadows Uplifted, Frances E. W. Harper

Again with my books published by Black women in 1892. That was just a good year for Black women writers, apparently.

So, I picked up that book…and didn’t put it down again until I was finished reading.

I was not expecting to be so engaged! But then again, I should have known I would have liked it. Ever since I took my Interracialism class my first semester of graduate school, I have been enamoured with the Black writers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, particularly those stories which deal with mulatto characters. I honestly have no idea where the fascination comes from, but I believe it’s the interest in different variations on American Blackness that confounds and enthralls me. I also have an interest in Afro-Latinx literature of the late 20th and 21st century. I think these stories remind me that Blackness is not monolithic, it’s diasporic and infinite.

I also love a text that challenges me to think and question, that I sort of wrestle with, and Iola Leroy was definitely one of those texts. Everytime I read a text with mixed raced characters, I have to redefine what I mean by Blackness, and I think that sort of exercise is good for the mind and important for my scholarship.

“‘Slavery,’ said Iola, ‘was a fearful cancer eating into the nation’s heart, sapping its vitality, and undermining its life.’” (p. 216)

As much as I have dreaded this process, fearfully reading as much as I could last semester and in the summer to avoid having to read stacks of books a day, I have found this intellectual exercise particularly stimulating. It’s also possible that I feel this way because the ratio of novels and poems to peer reviewed monographs is overwhelming. I’m spending my days lounging around, devouring books with my dog at my side, sipping perfectly brewed coffee and thinking how one day, I will desperately miss these perfect moments.

Branch Out: Round Three

If you’ve been following along with my journey, you’ll know that I have managed to be involved with the Lemon Project Branch Out Alternative Break every year since I got to William & Mary. My first year I was just a tagalong, helping my colleague run the trip. Last year, I co-ran the trip. And this year? This year was the first time I’ve ever taught it mostly on my own.

First things first–what is Branch Out? They’re service trips held during school breaks. Typically, students travel somewhere, but the Lemon Project trip is held on campus for three days the weekend before classes start. Our trip is less of a service trip, and more of a public history and social justice oriented project. As part of the Lemon Project’s goal is to have people think critically about the College’s and the greater Tidewater area’s relationship to slavery, Jim Crow and their legacies, it is always important to have the Branch Out trip reflect those goals.

What do we do? There’s usually one big project that the students work on over the course of three days. We break the project down into smaller, more manageable sections for the students to tackle in groups. In 2017, we did a critical analysis of race in the College’s newspaper, The Flat Hat, over the course of a hundred years, hosted on an Omeka site. In 2018, we created another Omeka exhibit analyzing space and place at William & Mary as told by the Legacy 3, the first three residential African American students at the College. This year, we created an exhibit using your average wordpress site, which brought a critical lens to all the commemorations that have been floating around the College and the greater Williamsburg area in the last few years. The students wrote essays on the 1619 commemoration, the 100th year anniversary of co-education at William & Mary, the 50th year anniversary of residential African American students, the Rowe presidency and the memorial to the enslaved the College is currently working on. In addition, they also created accompanying syllabi for how they would teach these topics.

Yes, they did this in three days.

When I sat in the History Grad Lounge on Saturday morning and walked the students through what I wanted them to do by Monday afternoon, their eyes grew wide and round as teacup saucers. I could feel their desire to ask me if I was crazy. They had every right to: it was a tall order.

And yet, they did it.

With the help of Dr. Vineeta Singh, I set up the weekend to give them as much guidance as I could. We brought in speakers to talk about each of the five topics; everyone from a First African Fellow at Jamestown, to President Rowe herself. Vineeta led what I consider to be one of the most useful workshops on building a radical syllabus. We even had some fun participating in a local peaceful protest called Moral Mondays led by Dr. John Whitley, a local activist.

In the afternoons, they worked. They conducted research, wrote their essays, created syllabi, peer reviewed each other’s work, and finally loaded everything into the WordPress site on Monday afternoon. They worked down to the wire and I hope they’re proud of everything they accomplished in just three short days.

Most importantly, for me, is that they all seemed to bond over their work; spending time having side conversations unrelated to the project, over dinners and lunches and goofing around in the evenings. I hope they look back on this project not only with a sense of pride, but fondness as well.

To Brendan, Angela, Emily, Sharon, Meg, Matthew, Kam, Jioni, Isa, Kelsey, Lex and Abby–

You know, my first semester of grad school, I thought frequently about leaving. Then, the day before Branch Out 2017, I happened to be at the right place at the right time. I was asked to help out, and I fell in love. I think my love of this particular project stems from the students. You all come to Branch Out because you want to– not because of an area requirement, or needing those last three credits. You genuinely want to know more about the legacies of slavery and Jim Crow at the college you call home. You want to have a full understanding of this place, complicated and gut-wrenching though it may be. I admire your collective work ethic, curiosity, and enthusiasm for your work. In all honesty, the energy that the Lemon Project Branch Out students have brought to the table each year keeps me going. The work that you do inspires me. Students like you all make my passion for teaching shine so much brighter. Each one of you is so precious to me, and I look forward to seeing what you do to make this world a better place.

Thank you so much for making what was probably my last Branch Out trip so wonderful.

With all my love,

Ravynn

Black Girl Learns to Code: “Computing for the Humanities”

William & Mary offers a week long, no credit course for graduate students called “Computing for the Humanities.” If you remember, I spent time last semester in community with Black digital humanities scholars at “Intentionally Digital, Intentionally Black” and then spent a lot of time afterwards trying to understand how my own work fit into this larger conversation about the digital. So naturally, after deciding that my scholarship fit into this conversation about digital humanities, the next step was to then increase my knowledge of the field. I was already enrolled in a Digital Humanities (DH) course, but I wanted more. I wanted to learn how to code.

So I signed up for “Computing for the Humanities” not really knowing what to expect. After the week long course was over, I was surprised at how much I had learned. Professor Deverick was kind and patient with us as we learned the basics of computing, built on those foundations, and then used the skills he equipped us with to solve our own problems. One of the most successful aspects of the course was that we spent a lot of time applying the programs we were learning to run to our own data sets; it was hands on in the best way. There was very little time spent lecturing, though Professor Deverick was very careful to explain what was happening in each line of code, which I found particularly useful as it made it much easier to replicate the example with my own data.

Each day was different, but followed the same pattern: in the mornings, we learned how to execute a program, what each of the components meant, walked through each piece together, and answered questions and attempted to problem solve. We learned how to create HTML web pages, how to scrape web pages for information, how to work with tabular data, how to create and run an Optical Character Recognition program in python, how to create visualizations, how to map things and we even had a tutorial on social media and how to scrape Twitter. Then, in the afternoons, we were set free to try our hand at executing the same program on our own data. So when we learned how to scrape web pages, I spent the afternoon collecting a CSV (comma-separated values) file full of information on my Black Girl Does Grad School posts; I created one spreadsheet collecting the title and dates of all of my posts and then another of all of the my guest posts. On the day we learned to do OCR, I spent the afternoon (unsuccessfully) trying to teach my program to read comic book pages. And on the day we did some work on social media, I was able pull down 3,200 of my own tweets and then see how many of them included references to my friend Micah (LOL).

The feeling of successfully creating a code and seeing it run properly is unparalleled. I was always so pleasantly surprised when anything ran correctly, and was always brimming with pride when visualizations popped up or when I was able to write a code (almost) on my own. Part of why I loved doing this work is the feeling of gratification when you have solved a problem. I think you have to be willing to fail, and be okay with failing, in order to work with computer programming. Yet, I think it’s more than being okay with failing– I think it’s more about a willingness to try and try again. It’s about a willingness to try a different way to the solution. It’s about problem solving and thinking on your feet. It’s such a creative enterprise and deeply artistic in many ways.

I love any type of project where I can show my results to my parents in a way in which they value. So for me to be able to show my dad my visualizations and my code and talk to him about what I had accomplished each day, was such a valuable experience for me.

At this particular moment in time, I’m not sure how much I will delve into programming on my own, but I know I want to try and create something, which is a pretty typical Ravynn move. If there’s anything I love, it’s making things. And the skills that I gained at “Computing for the Humanities” just gave me more tools for my arsenal. I can’t wait to see what I create.


Additionally, I just want to give a shout out to the undergraduate TAs for the course, Meg and Ali, who were wonderful and so helpful the entire week. Both of them sat with me at different junctures and walked me through how to do cool things with my information and I absolutely would not have been able to do so without them.