Category Archives: Readings

Week 6, or Harlem Blues

I’ve woken up essentially every day this week, praying that the bad mood has passed. The current soundtrack to my life would probably be some weary blues music. I find that deeply disturbing primarily because I’m (almost) 23 and life shouldn’t be that hard yet.

I’m trying to force myself to have positive thoughts, in spite of my car dying and still having to write a conference paper for Saturday. (!!!) Even though I’m not the most productive I’ve ever been, I’m focusing a little more energy on taking care of myself. I’m making time for pleasure reading (which sounds impossible considering the amount of academic reading I have to do each week), I’m meditating a little more, trying different teas and taking myself out to coffee shops I like. I spend more money than I’d like to admit on specialty coffee drinks, but it makes me happy. I recently discovered an Alice In Wonderland-esque cafe near the College, Culture Cafe. It serves some of the best lattes I’ve ever had in mismatched ceramic mugs and there’s plenty to look at while I sip: old, first edition, leather bound volumes with yellowing pages line the book shelves which cover the walls from floor to ceiling in the upstairs work area; paint spattered tarps double as curtains; a chandelier of mismatched Edison bulbs hangs just above my favorite spot, an old paisley couch with a coffeetable in need of a new paint job before it. I’m pretty sure the inside of my mind looks something like this cafe.

While I was there, waiting the arrival of a friend, my mind wandered, as it had done so many times this semester, to the authors of the Harlem Renaissance. The more I learned about them, the more they came alive, filling my mind as so many of my novel characters do. I wondered what they talked about over coffee, and what the rapport was between all of them. Reading David Levering Lewis’s When Harlem Was In Vogue makes me laugh at the way he describes the boys of the moment and I’m enthralled by the drama of it all. I texted my friend saying I would love to write an HBO series called Harlem which would follow all of these interconnected lives. 

Every time I’m introduced to a new character, I usually equate them to an artist I already know. I could barely contain myself when I realized Jean Toomer sounded a lot like my friend, Ed: brilliant to the point of genius with words but scatterbrained and so ill-focused he produced only one work. Whenever my professor narrates Jean Toomer’s life, I can’t help but imagine Ed, long and lanky, floating from project to project, attracted to whatever piqued his interest. I see my friend Araba in my mind’s eye when we speak of Zora– hard, unyielding, talented, with a tongue and mind that’s sharp as a whip. Then, of course, Langston Hughes always reminds me of Micah, the modest documentor of the harshest of Black realities. Her work is so sonic, infused with hip-hop, only a step away from Hughes’ jazz flavored everything.

Sometimes I wonder who I’m like of the group. I relate to both Countee Cullen and Jessie Fawcett, Countee for his love of the classic but mixed with Black flair that he admits he knows less of than he does French, Jessie for her valiant artistic effort but true talent as the teacher, the editor, the stage manager of the Renaissance. Then, sometimes, every now and then,  I come back to Nella Larsen, the mixed raced, foreigner to America in every way. A Danish mother and a West Indian father gave birth to an American Black Nella who didn’t fit, couldn’t fit by the American standard. Europe didn’t have her answer, Black America didn’t have her answer, and the homelessness haunts everything she writes. What I admire most about Nella, though, is the almost feline sharpness with which she writes. Her style is so distinct that I’d be hard pressed to pick up a piece of her work and not know its hers. She’s attentive to fashion and textiles and colors that correspond to moods, which shift almost from page to page. There’s this lack of self-restraint that I love about her novels, the unapologetically sensual female leads that run her stories.

There’s a detail that really makes me hesitate and linger over Nella: after her husband divorces her, she disappears from the Harlem scene for ten years with barely a trace. 

Things are not always what they seem…the leading message of both Nella’s work and her life, something that deeply resonates with me at the core of my being.

I like Sunday morning Harlem musings. The more I read about Black art and Black artists in the 20th century, the more I realize that’s where I want to reside when I teach. I love my comics, I love my literature, and this is just an extension–or a specialization, depending on how you think about it. I’m discovering my time periods and my contexts. No matter how much I love Ida B. Wells, she just doesn’t capture my entire imagination like the artists do. When I’m thinking of late 19th and early 20th century, my mind immediately goes to a paper. My interest in Ida B. Wells quickly turned into a paper topic: the self-representations of Ida B. Wells as a New Woman, in light of Booker T. Washington’s uplift and respectability politics. But when I’m thinking of Harlem, my mind spins with art projects. How would I do a web series version of my Harlem HBO series? Could I do a graphic biography of Nella Larsen’s life? How can I paint this? How can I imagine this? How can I create work that adequately places itself in conversation with the intellectual discourse of the time? In a lot of ways, it seems a shame to write an academic paper on the Harlem Renaissance, when I know these artists would have been more receptive to my art. They would have been curious to see how their discourse would have shaped my thought.

Making art is not the absence of critical thought. It is the most critical expression of thought that we have.

It’s why I’ll gladly keep my Sunday morning Harlem musings, with a cup of tea in one hand and a paintbrush in the other.

Week 3, or Burn Out and (Intellectual) Soul Food

It was bound to happen: the burnout. I went straight from undergrad to a masters/Ph.D. Program with nothing but a (relatively) short summer in between, and was only just beginning to recover from four years of near tortuously rigorous education at UVa when I rolled up to William and Mary.

Considering how challenging mentally and emotionally UVa had been for me specifically, I really ought to have given myself more than a three month respite from academic heavy lifting. Unfortunately or fortunately, depending on how you look at it, I have an unquenchable burning desire to know, to learn, and to be in an environment of constant stimulation. Academia is the perfect place for a person like me, except for one thing: academia tends to push you too hard, and more often than not, you’re not really in a position to push back.

It started with discovering an entire class had been cancelled on me. My tinge of annoyance turned into frustration and then to panic as I tried to find a solution. Panic turned into a constant and heightened state of anxiety as I’ve struggled to make up missed reading for the class I’ve since substituted for my original, keep up with the weekly assignments, write my lengthy (w e e k l y) précis as I can’t attend Tuesday classes, and find my footing generally in the class. This course was an imperfect solution to a decidedly perfect and well planned semester. 

Let me be clear: Academia is my stability. I can control very little, but there is something calming and steadying about sitting down each week, copying down all my assignments and readings, organizing it into manageable chunks that stabilizes my ever changing life and my incessantly active mind.

It was nothing but a misstep. It was like missing a step walking down the stairs and your heart flies into your throat. 

I still haven’t quite recovered.

Add all this to the fact that I’ve switched from working on the William and Mary Quarterly to OI books this semester, where the chapters are long and the turn around are short; that I’ve had 800 page texts for the last two weeks; and I’m attempting to orchestrate an art exhibit for the end of the month? And of course, now is when family issues intensify and time is slipping between my fingers, like my days are two hours shorter than everyone else’s. 

In the midst of all of the insanity, I managed to fall ill (which I’m starting to think is just as much a reaction to stress as it is actual sickness), Donald Trump was sworn in as President of the United States of America and I’ve been to a protest almost every week since. 

The emotional energy it takes to simply exist these days in a political moment that is less political than it is a circus of baffoonery takes away from my ability to do even the most basic things, like properly feed myself. I get caught in a maelstrom of cynical tweets and lengthy facebook posts and articles and photos and videos, a never ending stream of panicked negativity, and when I finally get my head above water, it seems impossible that I have to work and study when the world seems to be ending.

I am absolutely not the only person feeling like this. But it’s particularly isolating these days. 

I console myself by playing the Harry Potter movies on repeat, eating a small mountain of dark chocolate chips every day and ignoring responsibility by teaching myself to hand letter via instragram videos and Pinterest. I spend more time decorating my (bullet)journal, which I use for class notes, than I do actually taking notes. I can get through about a half hour of work at a time before everything gets overwhelming and I have to watch the first three minutes of Finding Dory to cheer myself up.

And a surprising amount of my comfort has come from reading (parts) of my 800 pages monstrosities of African-American history. In two of my classes, we’re wading through texts from the Nadir, the period of after Reconstruction and into the early 20th century that has been classified as one of the worst periods of racism in U.S. History. I’ve read The Philadelphia Negro and Black Reconstruction for one class, and have been encountering more and more Ida B. Wells in my supplementary reading. My teachers often talk about the W.E.B. DuBois’ hardness of personality and I think to myself, was there any other way to be? Was there any other way to endure the hardness of life during the Nadir? Was it not the grit of surviving the Nadir that gave Ida B. Wells the steel to not run when her printing press was burned down? Not only did she stay, but she got twice as loud and twice as fierce. 

I like to think that it was their belief in the ability of humanity to improve and in their own personal ability to do what they felt was just that sustained them. I like to believe that it was a combination of faith and passion and a strong sense of morality that kept them going. Trying times reveal the worst and the best of us, and I’m just hoping that my current weakness will give way to strength. All I can do is move one day at a time, having faith each day, feeding my passion, and doing at least a little good each day, for myself and for others. I have to have faith that each small, positive thing will add up to a happy life in a larger picture. 

So I read a little Black history every day. I thank God for their strength and pray for my own. I admire the intelligence and tenacity of those who came before me, and pray that I can do my forebearers justice. I praise the good they did this world and it inspires me to do good in my own way.

Thus far, that’s been the best medicine for Burn Out– taking it day by day, and letting my work inspire me to do just a little good each day.

Week 10, or “How to See the World” and Other Such Adventures

I only had one class this week because of a very well needed Fall Break, thus there’s very little to report. I’m approaching a very dangerous part of the semester, where my ideas can no longer safely reside in my little Ravynn mind, but have to make their way into a carefully crafted word document.

I’m only mildly freaking out about that.

Despite being here on fellowships– a sign that the powers-that-be feel that my mind is valuable– it’s precisely that pressure that gets to me. I feel like it’s time to prove why I merited all the money and awards. It’s time to produce a shiny, ground-breaking thing, when in reality, I’m just hoping to be semi-coherent.

I’ve planned, and cultivated ideas, and looked theories– and for all of that, I still have to contend with being an American Studies scholar, which has no uniform methodology, which means my beautiful ideas will fall flat if I can’t figure out what approach will best support them.

So, I do what I always do when I realize I’m spending too much time in my head and gave myself over to my homework for the week. My professor assigned two books for class this week and I was fully prepared to skim the second, but I was sucked in so completely by the time I finished the introduction that I read the entire thing, start to finish, in about 3 hours, without realizing I’d done it.

Nicholas Mirzoeff’s “How to See the World” is my scholarship #goals. It is interdisciplinary, international, intersectional– everything I want my own work to be. It takes one concept, how we see the world today, uses to draw connections across history, between art forms, to science and the environment, to selfies. We start with the first attempts to understand human vision then move to France to understand the Lumiere brothers’ revolutionary work in the autochrome portraits and the first films. Mirzoeff takes us to South Africa, Asia, and the Civil Rights Era American South, discussing everything from signs and symbols of Apartheid to how we represented segregation here. The reader is forced to consider the how we as a society saw huge events that impacted the entire world on the television, everything from JFK’s assassination and funeral to the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

What’s impressive about this work is that it’s clear Mirzoeff is trained and well educated in numerous disciplines that all touch several different countries and cultures. Despite the broad range of topics he covers, absolutely everything has a point and it is easy to see how it connects to his bigger question.

It’s absolutely awe inspiring.

And it makes me feel a whole lot better.

My training is similar: I was in the International Baccalaureate program, which meant global perspectives were my entire academic career. The mission of the program is to promote well-roundedness in its scholars, so for example, my literature classes not only taught the American and English literature canon, but I got a great deal of exposure to South American, African, African-American, East European, Asian, and Native American literature. My French class expanded beyond L’Hexagone and reached into Africa and the Carribean. I learned about the Cold War from both sides of the coin in my History courses.

My university education was similar. I majored in French and Comparative Literature, with a minor in International Relations, but I also spent a lot of time darting in and out of African-American Studies classes.

My training is not just academic by no means. I was a classically trained, competitive pianist for 12 years of my life, which meant I also knew about international music history, changing currents in artistic life, and how certain styles influenced others. Often these transitions mirrored visual art movements, so I learned those, too. My love of the arts bled into my passion for graphic novels, theater, film, and other visual media.

By far the biggest challenge of my life has been trying to weave all of my interests together in a cohesive statement so that people understand me. My mind has been shaped by so many diverse art forms, cultures and languages that I worried that academia would force me to produce a certain type of work in which I would have to drop certain aspects of my training. Even with American Studies being the most versatile field, I worried about losing all of my international training.

Mirzoeff shows how you can incorporate it all. I cheered when I read about the Lumiere brothers because I knew all of this already from my time in Lyon with the UVA in Lyon program. I learned about “Workers Leaving the Lumiere Factory” at the hanger where it was filmed at L’Institut Lumiere. I studied those early films under the watchful eye of an actual French film scholar. When Mirzoeff discusses the complexity of articulating the meaning of the term flaneur, my heart warmed for my mentor and advisor who not only taught me this term in Paris, but encouraged his students to become flaneurs ourselves for an afternoon, because this was the real way to embrace a culture.

My interdisciplinary training paid off when I followed Mirzoeff’s discussions of Silent Spring by Rachel Carson, as my 9th grade Biology teacher taught us from that book. It paid off when he discussed self-portraits and other art works, including my favorite Mondrian, whose work I was able to see at la Musee d’Orsay. It paid off when I could follow his arguments surrounding the famous image of protesters at Woolworth’s.

My own work, hopefully, will be just as interdisciplinary, just as international, just as intersectional as Mirzoeff’s. Reading his work made me realize that my interests are in no way disconnected: I just have to find the right line to connect them.