Category Archives: Readings

Black Girl Does Oxford

by Kristen Barrett

Sometimes chasing your childhood dreams exposes you to some mind-rattling realities. You dream of writing a young adult novel only to learn about the competitive world of publishing. You dream of pursuing a Hollywood acting career only to learn about the “casting couch.” You dream of attending a prestigious United Kingdom university only to learn about its paucity of black students.

I distinctly remember the first time my mother mentioned the Rhodes Scholarship to me, a bright-eyed eighth grader in love with Jane Austen. In those days, I daydreamed about the British countryside and imagined myself studying Chaucer at one of the most prestigious educational institutions in the world.

Fast forward to my matriculation as a Jefferson Scholar at the University of Virginia. I set my sights on a more immediate goal: attending the UVA in Oxford Summer Program. The Jefferson Scholar Foundation pays for every scholar to participate in one study abroad program the summer before their junior year, and from the moment I heard about UVA in Oxford, I knew that would be the program for me. Luckily, the head professor accepted me into the program, and I arrived at University College on July 1 filled to the brim with excitement.

Approaching the other UVA students, I noticed something immediately. I was the only black student in the program. A familiar feeling churned in my stomach. An engulfing self-awareness that can easily morph into a feeling of empowerment or isolation, responsibility or burden, opportunity or affliction. From this moment, I knew that depending on my attitude I would either feel like a representative of black excellence the program needs or merely a cultural outsider.

This feeling became all too familiar to me in high school. Growing up in my 90 percent white all girls school, I carried this awareness with me every day. Almost always, it would empower me to embrace my racial identity and to explore the joy of pursuing interracial relationships. But sometimes, on those low energy days, it would bury me in insecurity.

When dreaming of Oxford as an eighth grader, I never considered how white such an institution would be. Considering Oxford’s undergraduate numbers, only 2 percent of undergraduate students are black, and some of the colleges go years without accepting more than two black students. I did not consider how the United Kingdom’s identity politics vastly differ from the United States’ or that racism toward blacks exists on both sides of the pond. I did not ask myself: what affects my happiness more, the prestige of the institution or the ethnic makeup of the student body and faculty?

This quandary and its accompanying feeling hung over my head during my first few days at University College. It pushed to the forefront of my mind when I saw that all of the program’s professors were white men. It left a bad taste in my mouth when I noticed the only black people in University College were the ones who served us tea. It caused me to question my place in the program.

The story could end there, but it doesn’t. After receiving some motivational words from my best friend back home, I gave myself an ultimatum. I could waste precious energy worrying over whether I belonged or I could claim my deserved space in the program myself. I chose the latter.

For the rest of my time in the program, I chose empowerment, responsibility, and opportunity over isolation, burden, and affliction. I embraced my status as “the black girl,” and I ran with it. This was one black girl no one was about to forget. I incorporated race relations into my political discussions with my friends; I made allusions to black romantic comedies like The Best Man; and most importantly, I expressed all my idiosyncrasies that come along with me — whether they were stereotypically “black” or not. I was not the spokesperson for my race, but I was the spokesperson for Kristen Rochelle Barrett.

This outlook immediately improved my experience at University College. With my insecurity held at bay, I delved deeply into my course on politics of the European Union, frolicked gleefully around Oxfordshire with my new friends, and to no one’s surprise found that my dream university lived up to all of my expectations. The scholarly college town with Harry Potter style cafeterias and boutique store-lined streets won my heart.

Oxford taught me a lesson in self-confidence. What I like is what I like. Given my love for nineteenth century transatlantic literature, it is highly likely that I will end up in a graduate program with very few black scholars. My experience in Oxford reassured me that I can not only survive but also thrive in such an environment. I do not need to be surrounded with people similar to me in race, religion, gender, etc. in order to flourish as a person. As long as I have a support system of dutiful friends and family, I will blaze trails.


Kristen Barrett is a rising third year at the University of Virginia, where she is pursuing a major in English and a minor in Drama. Her hometown is Nashville, TN. Her favorite black intellectuals are Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou, and her parents. She is passionate about encouraging black girls to pursue higher education, and she wants to attend graduate school herself in order to study depictions of people of African descent in transatlantic nineteenth-century English literature. Only God knows what the future holds, but she is ready for the #BlackGirlMagic!

Fade to Black: Take 2, Food for Art

No, y’all, I have not started grad school yet. But I’m still a Black Girl and they gave me a column, so…read on!

I’ve come to realize that my artistic practice is HEAVILY dependent on reading. I like to think my writing style is similar to improvisational jazz or freestyle rap—words and images sort of just flow out of me with no rhyme or reason…until all of a sudden they do. If you know music, you know improv and freestyle take skill. You don’t just start off spitting ten minutes of off the dome lyrics like Black Thought. That takes mad skill. Yes, you’ve gotta practice. But you’ve also got to consume a lot of ideas and cadences in order to have enough “stuff” inside of you to regurgitate in an innovative way. Let’s call it artistic vomit (or maybe not…that was kinda gross). The same goes for me. I hit my dry spells and notice distinct differences in my work when I’m not reading or taking African-American Studies classes. When I feed myself intellectually, my art makes connections that my brain doesn’t realize until 2 weeks into editing or rehearsing. Since I figured that might be a good place to be before beginning my NYU journey; ladies and gentlemen, I present to you my [SPOILER FREE!] summer reading list:

Citizen // Claudia Rankine

I told myself that I was going to take a writing break this summer (to rest up before grad school/the rest of my life). If you know me, you know that I pretty much suck at resting because I can’t keep my brain still. This summer, you can thank Citizen for my accidental creative frenzy. I had this beautiful moment where I was sitting on the porch, looking at an orange Kansas sky, just reading because I finally had time. Suddenly, I was taking notes and pausing to imagine; and before I knew it, I was at my laptop typing up ideas for new projects. I felt free. That, my friends, is the mark of a good read in my book (Ha. Ha. see what I did there?). Citizen is essentially a long form poem. Its nonlinear structure uses lyricism, narrative, and imagery to create a collage about what personhood means for Black bodies in America. Because this is how my brain works, I can’t help but compare it to Kahlil Joseph’s short films or Kendrick Lamar’s albums. It’s a hyper-visceral, non-linear reading experience. Rankin’s poetic chops are un-freaking-deniable, but let us not forget how fine-tuned her critical analysis skills are, too. My favorite chapter was on the Queen of Everything Magical and Black, Her Royal Highness Serena “Slay Me With A Racket” Williams. It’s not a long book, but will absolutely go down as one of the most important contemporary texts I’ve read thus far.

Swing Time // Zadie Smith

This novel tells the story of two London dancers: an unnamed biracial Jamaican and her friend Tracey. While one of them reluctantly takes a transatlantic journey, the other follows her dreams of stardom.  When I first read the back cover in the 57th Street Bookstore in Chicago, “Black,” “dance,” and “bodies” were enough to catch my attention. I’d heard really great things about Smith’s White Teeth, so I was pretty excited to start my summer reading with Swing Time. I’ve gotta say, though, I was kind of disappointed. It began with some very nostalgic moments that reminded me of my childhood as a little Black girl in ballet class, and tackled issues of celebrity and colonialism.  While there were some really lovely, vivid moments in the text, I kept waiting for the whole story to come together, you know? I kept turning pages and reading sentences thinking “okay, THIS is why she chose to tell this story; THIS is going to make these 300 pages worth my time.” That moment never came. It’s not that the story was confusing—I think Smith did a great job of articulating the mundane in enlightening ways; I just never found the “why”. Why now, why these characters, why this structure? There was so much bubbling under the surface, I just needed a single sentence, or even a single word that would make this experience satisfying. I wanted this novel to dance in the same way that its characters do, and while there are sparks of that, I didn’t feel Zadie Smith’s soul.

Eloquent Rage // Brittney Cooper

Cooper begins by telling the story of her feminist awakening, and goes on to explain the ways in which this new lens has informed every crevice of her life. This book is smart. Cooper is smart. But this book isn’t academic in the traditional sense. Yes, she is absolutely making well researched and thorough arguments…but it feels like you’re hearing all of this from your “woke” auntie instead of your professor. It’s mad real. While I couldn’t agree with all of Cooper’s arguments, I understand why this book is important and enlightening. What I found really successful was her ability to expound upon the struggles that I feel every. single. day. as a Black girl, and validate them with academic prowess. Her analysis was broad and thorough—she cited everything from Beyonce, to scripture, to Michelle Obama, to DuBois. I vibe with this because she takes the many things that she’s been feeding her Black Girl Mind with and uses them to make sense of and condemn violence that I’ve come to see as normal—being at the bottom of the dating totem pole and being the token Black girl, for example. If nothing else, Eloquent Rage has given me new awareness of what it means to navigate the world with my Black Girl body. Chapters of this text, particularly the ones about police brutality, Michelle Obama, and Cooper’s relationship to white feminism, also informed my own work this summer. Oh, did I mention how I LOVE the way she capitalizes Black Girl every single time? Yeah, that’s about to be a thing in every script I write from here on out.

Long Division // Keise Laymon

During my last semester of undergrad I wanted—more than anything in this entire world—to take a class called The Black Voice, with UVA’s new hip-hop professor A.D. Carson. I signed up and went to the first class. Unfortunately for this artist, I had to drop the class because I was shooting two films and putting up a play. But I kept all of the books and am determined to get through the entire syllabus. Long Division was first up and I’ve gotta say… It’s wonderful. And I mean that literally—filled with wonder. Laymon is somehow able to lead us through a story that simultaneously feels deeply familiar and otherworldly. It’s one of those novels where I can’t say much without giving it away (yes, it’s one of those!). But what you should know is that it follows a teenager in Mississippi as he discovers the power of his own voice—the power of words. Maybe we can call this book science-fiction, but it feels too…real to be put in that category. Maybe afrofuturism? Or maybe just intensely imaginative. I think my favorite thing about this book is the descriptive language. Perhaps there are some TMI moments, but through the voice of our protagonist, City, Laymon lyrically articulates the mind of a really smart, but really suppressed, rural teenage boy. I found myself wanting to enter that world time and time again.

Telepathologies // Cortney Lamar Charleston 

I picked up this book while I was in Chicago shooting my Emmett Till film; an eerie and beautifully appropriate scenario. Telepathologies is a collection of poetry that explores what it means to walk in fear and danger as a Black person in America. You know when you’ve been listening to a song and for the first time hear a lyric in a different way. You rewind and you say to yourself (or, in my case, very loudly) “BARZZZ.” That was pretty much my entire experience in reading these poems.

I read, watch, and write a lot of stuff about death (…maybe we should unpack that)—it’s been my way of mourning and trying to make sense of lost Black life. But these poems felt fresh. They felt raw. They felt delicate. They felt intentional. As I read, there were so many moments when I thought I’d figured out Charleston’s style and mode of thinking, but then he’d take me for a turn and I’d have to stop, breathe, and ponder. I’d come out of my trance with a billion questions, yet I’d still just want to sit and keep rereading the same line that made me stop in the first place. A new perspective on the familiar. That is what I need from a poet; that is what I desperately come to the art form searching for, and Charleston delivered. I recently found his twitter (after realizing that there’s no “u” in his first name)…so he can look forward to tweets about how badly I want to make his poems into films.

There you have it! I didn’t meet all of my reading goals this summer, but I have We Were Eight Years In Power// Coates and Meridian// Walker in my camera bag, and lots of train rides from theatre conferences to film festivals. I’ve got a stack of books ready to ship to my new place in New York, five more that I found at this delightful outdoor used bookstore in Connecticut (check out Book Barn, y’all!), and at least two years worth of subway rides in my future. Needless to say, I’ve got plenty of artistic fuel ready to take me through this next phase.

P.S. If I had to make a playlist with all of these books in mind:

Swing Time—Chameleon x Leah Smith

Citizen—Rollcall For Those Absent x Ambrose Akinmusire

Eloquent Rage—Blk Girl Soldier x Jamila Woods

Long Division—Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik x OutKast

Telepathologies—FEAR. x Kendrick Lamar

#RavynnReads: “Eloquent Rage” by Brittney Cooper

This week and I got off on the wrong foot. Weird things were happening with my mood, I couldn’t sit still and I was feeling generally out of sorts. So, I decided do what I always do when I’m feeling in a funk: I get books.

I drove up to the north part of my city to the public library that I prefer– brand new, new books, and a general sparkle that always inflates my mood. I didn’t have any books in mind– I thought I’d just go have a look around and see if anything caught my eye. When nothing did, I took to the computers to see if they had any of the books that I needed for comps. After spending about five minutes in the search engine, I began to notice a trend. Every time I would search a book that I wanted (The New Jim Crow, Audre Lorde’s Collected Poems, Nnedi Okorafor’s Binti, Eloquent Rage, etc.), my heart would leap with excitement upon noting that the library had the book, and do a mild decrescendo upon realizing the availability was at the library downtown.

As I left the library fuming about the inconvenience of having to drive all the way across town to the other library, it struck me that all the books that I wanted were Black books and they were all housed in the library smack in the middle of the Black neighborhood. Quelle surprise. As if Black books were not able to take up space in a predominantly white space. As if all a Black populace would be interested in is Black books. As if white populations would not be interested in Black books. (Granted there were thousands of books in both libraries, but I’m still frustrated that the majority of the Black books were in the “Black” library.)

Shocked at my own naiveté, I decided half way home that driving the 25 minutes across town was worth it if it meant getting Brittney Cooper’s Eloquent Rage. This library was dimly lit and generally of a poorer disposition than the library in the white part of town, but within minutes, my arms were full of my beloved Black books, including a Okorafor book, The Book of Phoenix, Ibram Kendi’s Stamped from the Beginning, Zadie Smith’s Feel Free and of course, as the title of this piece implies, Eloquent Rage: A Black Feminist Discovers Her Superpower by Brittney Cooper.

After simmering down from the injustice of realizing my books had been segregated, I settled into the couch to read the opening chapter of Eloquent Rage. Within moments, I found myself chuckling at Cooper’s candor, snapping my fingers in agreement with many of her sentiments, and riveted by her analysis which seamlessly wove together theory and personal anecdotes which produced scholarship which would be palatable to a broad range of audiences.

Damn, I thought, drowning in my own admiration, I want to write like her when I grow up.

In Eloquent Rage, Audre Lorde shares the stage with Beyoncé, who shares with Patricia Hill Collins, who shares with Michelle Obama. Black women have been theorizing about anger forever, both in academic and non-academic spaces. Cooper breaks down and analyzes Beyoncé’s “Formation” video with the same care that she defines ‘feminism’ and ‘intersectionality.’ For that, I am eternally grateful because I have seen what the type of public facing scholarship I want to write looks like in Cooper’s work.

In addition to discussing Black women’s rage, which as Audre Lorde notes is both full of information and energy, and an appropriate response to racism (Sister Outsider), Cooper discusses understanding her own feminist identity in conjunction with other identities that don’t always inherently mesh well together. I am thinking specifically of when she discusses being a Christian feminist and also being a heterosexual Black feminist. Cooper’s right that feminism has yet to really take into that God plays a big part in a lot of Black feminists’ lives, but I think she’s also right to point to the fact that Black churches still tend to be sites of Black patriarchy run amok. How do we reconcile those two spaces? How do we become good God-fearing Christians while also wanting to smash the patriarchy?

Another topic which I think Cooper nails in “Love in a Hopeless Place,” is difficulty heterosexual Black feminists face while in pursuit of relationships, a place I only know too well. I am either too intimidating, too angry, too sassy, too opinionated, too bossy, or too independent– words that essentially equate to “You cannot be forced into submission by me. I find that threatening.” Cooper’s analysis is rife with statistics and a much more eloquent analysis than what you will find here. She turns a conversation about a difficulty find mates into a debriefing on the Moynihan Report, which essentially calls the Black family a “tangle of pathology” and that our maternal led households are a part of the problem. Much of the Moynihan Report is based on the assumption that “legitimate” families are constituted of (1) father, (1) mother and (2.5) children. (Maybe not the 2.5 kids part but the “nuclear family unit” piece is there.)

Using Beyoncé as a jumping off point for discussing feminism, Cooper states that feminism’s tagline should be, as her idol says, “I love being a woman and being a friend to other women.” (28) If that’s not your MO, then you’re not a feminist, Cooper decides. That goes for nonsense about not having Black female friends because “they’re too much drama” or you “get along better with men.” Cooper explicitly says:

Friendships with Black girls have always saved my life. I give the side eye to any Black woman who doesn’t have other Black women friends, to any woman who is prone to talk about how she relates better to men than to women, to anyone who goes on and on about how she “doesn’t trust females.” If you say fuck the patriarchy but you don’t ride for other women, then it might be more true that the patriarchy has fucked you, seducing you with the belief that men care more about your well-being than women do.

It isn’t true.

(p. 13-14)

I can say with absolute certainty that Black women friendships have given me the most out of life, from my intellectual soul sisterhood with Micah, to my coffeeshop buddy Kels, to my homie Alexis and my cousin Leah, I would not be the woman I am today without each one of them. They lift as they climb, they’re there for me, they understand me and most of all they listen with care when I come home from class after three hours of having to listen to racist, homophobic vitriol.

Brittney Cooper’s book, which touches on everything which matters to Black women, from dating to hair, as touched my life in important ways, namely by making me feel seen. Thanks to Cooper, I, as a big black girl nerd from the South, that had trouble making Black girl friends growing up and trouble dating, who grew up in a devout faith, but is, without a shadow of a doubt, a feminist, feel like part of my story has been told. A story that has only partially been exposed. From her complicated relationships with white women, to her mixed feeling about Hillary Clinton and Tevin Campbell obsession, Cooper and I might be of different generations, but her story is mine and I loved reading every second of it.

11/10 would recommend and am currently trying to figure out if I can add this to my Comps list.

But, seriously, don’t take my word for it, check it out for yourself.