Category Archives: Teaching

The Teachability of Legendborn

I’d already rearranged the syllabus for my spring 2021 Magical Black Girls class once– back in June when Bethany C. Morrow released A Song Below Water. It was too good not to teach, especially when it specifically spoke to themes of the violence and silencing Black girls too often endure, the matrilineal nature of our power, and the strength of sisterfriends.

I told myself that I would not be readjusting again, no matter what new thing I discovered.

And then I was able to get my hands on an ARC of Legendborn.

Tracy Deonn pens a modern take on Arthurian legend reimagined as a secret society at a Southern Predominately White Institution (PWI). The protagonist, Bree Matthews, falls head first into this world, and it’s made abundantly clear to her by the others in the reimagined “Order” that Bree does not fit.

Any Black person at a PWI, particularly a Southern one, knows the experiences Bree endures intimately. We know the malevolent administrator who sneers at our presence. We have met the parents who are quick to label us as “Affirmative Action” and believe that us occupying a space on those campuses has somehow stolen something from their children. We have befriended the seemingly innocuous white person, who says something racist and when you call them on it they’re quick to dismiss your retort, saying, “You know what I mean.”

All of that would be enough to make anyone’s blood boil just below the surface, but add to it the depths of Bree’s grief and being thrown into an unknown magical world, where the same essence may have a different name to different people. Where the intersections of experience and history collide in unexpected ways. Deonn seamlessly weaves a tale based in uncomfortable truths about the relationship between Black and white people in the South that span centuries. Though born from those uncomfortable truths, it takes up the strength and power generated by Black individuals and families and shows how we have risen and continue to rise.

For all of that, Legendborn is the rare kind of book that satisfies the appetite of all the various portions of my personality and interests. Most times, it’s a pick and choose type of situation: perhaps you get high fantasy but lack depictions of Black girlhood, or you get Black girlhood but not as the heroine of the story.

With Tracy Deonn’s Legendborn, I didn’t have to choose. I got to bring all the sides of my magic-loving, history-seeking, smart-mouthed Black girl self to the table when I settled down to read a chapter or two. As a Black girl who has spent a significant amount of time at two Southern Predominantly White Institutions (PWIs) with big reputations for both my bachelors and masters/Ph.D. programs, the difficult, conflictual feelings Bree has about Carolina didn’t need to be explained. I understood the instinctual pull Bree felt to a campus that was not built with her in mind, and yet needing to know it intimately because it would bring her closer to a parent.

Reading Legendborn pulled to the surface all the things I didn’t know about my undergraduate institution, but that I learned in great detail at my graduate institution. I spent two years as a graduate assistant for The Lemon Project: A Journey of Reconciliation, my campus’ attempt at making the history of Black people readily available, to bring forth that which the institution would rather hide. In that time, I learned not only about the enslaved people who built my university, but met the Black folks who would much later integrate our Southern PWI, and build with the Black students who still work to make it a better place.

I know the high fantasy is the draw of Legendborn, but it is the richness with which Deonn weaves so much of what is important to me as the backdrop of this narrative. It’s the vibrancy with which Deonn allows Bree to be a Black girl and revel in all the complexity of what that means. Yes, I love the way she has reimagined Arthuriana, I love the strong characters, the elements of the magic that underlies this whole world, but it is the way Bree is simply in this world, whether she fits or not, that makes it near and dear to my heart and what makes it perfectly teachable.

Bree is the result of centuries of racial conflict and the deep love Black women have for each other. She is both softness and hard edges; strength and fragility. She is deliciously human and wondrously exceptional.

That she is all of these things and stunningly magical is a revolution.

It’s legendary.

Four Years, Four Lessons

Today, August 8, 2020, marks the four year anniversary of Black Girl Does Grad School!

 

On this day in 2016, I published my first post, hopefully entitled, “Ravynn Stringfield, (Someday) Ph.D.” I wrote it the morning before I was due to start my first day of training to become an Omohundro editorial apprentice, my first graduate assistantship. From there, I would go on to become the assistant for the Lemon Project, a position I held, and loved, for two years. I left Lemon to serve as a teaching assistant for a film and modernization class and this coming year I will finally get to teach my own 290 course on Black girls and fantasy.

Two weeks after I wrote that initial post and a couple about Omohundro training, I would attend my first grad class. Over the course of two and a half years, I would take fourteen classes: six courses which counted towards my master’s degree (which I graduated with in 2018) and eight that went towards my Ph.D. There were some really fun ones: I loved my Digital Humanities class and Critical Race Theory; I lived for Interracialism and the comics class that I, and a couple of my classmates, begged my advisor to teach. And some were…let’s say, challenging– and not because of the academic rigor.

I’ve come a long way since the first time I used the term “digital humanities” to describe my work in a blog post: from denying what I did counted as DH to taking my first DH class to being wrapped up in a cocoon of love by Black digital humanists at “Intentionally Digital, Intentionally Black.” Then from my first DHSI to consistently proclaiming my identity as a digital human(ist) by showcasing it in my bio and wearing a hashtag on a chain around my neck (Left).

I’ve also come a long way since coursework. Since I finished my last semester in December 2018, I spent a semester reading for comps, I took the exams, defended my prospectus and began writing my dissertation in earnest.

I’m now in my last stretch of grad school, a stretch that could admittedly take a while to get through, but I have faith that everything will work out okay. Four years ago, writing a dissertation was the last thing on my mind as I struggled to figure out how to read at the graduate level, manage my time, and find ways to infuse my work with my own signature flair. But, as I said so long ago:

“But never mind how I got here; the point is, now I’m here.”

So in honor of my four years in graduate school and my four years of this blog, I decided I wanted to share with you four lessons I’ve learned since August 2016:

 

  1. You can chase clout if you want to, but I’d much rather work with someone who cares about me and has my best interests at heart. Picking an advisor is one of the most difficult parts about graduate school. In my early days, I switched about three times, only to land with exactly who they suggested for me to start with. As it turns out, I wasn’t ready to work with her in the early days; but as I matured and figured out who I wanted to be as a scholar, writer and person, I realized I wanted someone who would respect my work as both scholarship and art. Someone who would help me protect my work and find the right homes for it. I found an advocate, and I’m extraordinarily lucky, because some people don’t.
  2. Find your people. And accept that sometimes your people may not be in your program or even at your institution. I have a few folks that I can turn to from my university, but for the most part, when I have graduate school related concerns or need support, I trot to my digital network of peers I have developed over time on Twitter. (Shout out to the Digital Dreamgirls, Allante, Joy and Autumn + so many more.)
  3. Know your audience. Ultimately this advice has saved me so much heartache and grief. The moment I disavowed myself from the notion that my writing had to be all things to all people, I became free. Knowing who you’re writing for, the folks you’d like to serve, can help you focus your work and questions, and also helps you tune out voices who don’t understand what you’re trying to do.
  4. Grad school may be a big part of your life, but it’s not your whole life. You have a whole identity, full of parts who aren’t served or fulfilled by what you do in the classroom or in your research. Make sure you’re tending to those parts of yourself by doing whatever you need to do to feel full. For me, it was yoga, making art, spending time with my family and dog and continuing to write across genres.

*

To all those who have been on this journey with me thus far, thank you.

To all those about to begin their journey, good luck.

And to all: be well.

Sirens and Superwomen: Finding My Way Back to the Power in My Words

I finished reading A Song Below Water by Bethany C. Morrow last night. I put off reading it for a little while because I knew whatever was inside, was going to change my life– or at least the layout of my syllabus.

In the midst of a pandemic and a national uprising sparked by the recent murders of Black folks (in particular, George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade and Nina Pop), I learned I was finally going to be teaching my own self-designed course. It was hard to be joyful; how, I wondered, was I supposed to teach a class on Black girls, new media and magic, when it feels like our worlds are nothing but fear and rage right now. How can I ask them to suspend disbelief– to meet me in imagined worlds– when our world exists the way it does?

Perhaps A Song Below Water didn’t give me answers, but it certainly cleared my head.

Morrow’s debut YA novel takes place in Portland, Oregon. Contemporary Portland, Oregon– not some faraway land you have to dream up the details of. The only difference is that the myths and folktales are true: Sirens walk among us (Seriously. They walk. They aren’t mermaids here.) Except one itty, bitty detail: only Black women are Sirens.

A Song Below Water follows the intertwined stories of two sister-friends, Effie and Tavia, as Tavia learns to embrace the power of her voice as a Siren and Effie comes into herself. (Vague, I know, but any more than that would be major spoilers.)

What readers think is a delightful tale of mermaids and underwater adventures and escapades is actually an insightful social commentary and poignant look at what it’s like to be a Black girl in America. Morrow’s book argues that the threat folks ascertain in Black girls and women can be found in our voices; it argues that our magic is real and it is matrilineal; and it argues that your Black girlfriends? They can always see you, and love you, for who you are. Readers are dropped into the lives of Black girls– microaggressions, love, protests, joy, and all. Morrow smartly weaves this narrative of our realities: being stopped by cops, snide remarks about our hair, the discomfort of being the Only Black Girl in Class with the joy of falling in love for the first time, falling asleep next to your best friend, reveling in the fact that you love yourself. Family love and difficulties hold space with fear of the unknown and connections with the ancestors.

Effie and Tavia’s world is absolutely lush and you want to dive headlong into it.

I picked it up to read a few days after it arrived. I had just woken up from a dream about my late grandmother. Not two pages in, and Tavia’s talking about the connection she has with her late grandmother. Weird, I thought, but not totally bizarre. A few more pages in and Tavia is describing the murder of a Black woman by the police that is sparking a lot of conversation around the nation. It was definitely bordering on prescient. But what truly sealed the deal for me was Tavia’s continued internal battle against her own nature based on external pressures– which is to say, the desire and need to use her voice.

For the first time since starting Black Girl Does Grad School in August 2016, I went an entire month without posting. It wasn’t intentional. Things just went from bad to worse with every passing day, and I felt paralyzed. There was not a thing I could say that would make it any better. So I took comfort in making art– where words failed me, I had images. I read the words of those who have come before me, thinking about the racist institutions they have named and rejected and which we still continue to use despite knowing they are built to work against us.

I thought about how I felt I had nothing to add to the conversation that hasn’t already been said.

I thought about how this was not the right time to write.

I thought about how my body physically resisted any attempt to write.

Even if I wanted to, my body was saying “No.”

And probably for the first time in my 26 year old life (the same age, I remember, Breonna Taylor was when she was murdered in her sleep), I listened to my body and I took time to grieve. Mourn. Reflect.

The expectation is that you come out of these moments of deep introspection with answers. I have none. I only know I am indebted to those who have given me the strength to go on. Those folks range from my parents to Bethany C. Morrow.

A Song Below Water gave me hope not only for a future of freedom; but a present informed by our ability to embrace our own power. Morrow showed me the way back to my voice– my words. My power. My freedom.

It was a lesson I was glad to learn; and one I can’t wait to share.