Category Archives: The Journey

Comps Unplugged: Confessions of a Recovering Perfectionist

I pride myself a little too much on my plucky, “can-do” attitude. The more impossible the task, the more I seek to master it. I mean, you’re talking to the girl whose senior quote was: “It’s fun to do the impossible.” (Walt Disney) I’ve never exactly fancied myself Wonder Woman, but my expectations of myself are incredibly high.

So when comps prep season finally rolled around, I was overwhelmed by the impossibility of the reading but determined to kick its butt anyway. I planned, I organized, I scheduled. I made spreadsheets, lists, and even planned how many times a month I’d go to the library for books. And I counted– oh my, I counted. I count down the number of days I have until exams (currently 36), I count the number of texts I have left to read (for each list and then total), I count how many books I have to read a day in order to finish everything.

All of the neuroticism was eventually going to reach a boiling point.

I sat down in the living room with my mother, who (God bless her) has patiently listened to my daily comps stats reports, my summaries of novels that she’s never going to read and my many attempts at talking myself through this thing. I told her that I was probably not going to finish the last 18 or so books, despite my meticulous scheduling. I decided that giving myself at least a week to review (and rest and recover) at the end was more important than reading up until the day of the exam. I said it as if someone had died. My mom stared at me.

“So you read over 200, almost 300, books and you’re telling me you’re going to let those last eighteen to cause you to have a breakdown? Don’t break down at the end and let all your hard work go away.”

She was right. She’s never been so right. I am the Queen of Anxiety-Induced Melt Downs, and the fact is I’ve worked entirely too hard to let that be the case this time around.

As the days wound down, I began to suspect that these last days leading up to my exams would be the hardest, so now I think it’s time to adjust my plan of attack:

  • I am going to read about a book a day for the next month.
  • I am going to devote more time to doing things that will help me feel more prepared, like meeting with my committee, trying to develop questions, making outline answers to those questions.
  • I am going to stop working myself so hard. The anxiety attacks and the shoulder pain isn’t worth it.
  • I am going to prioritize my health in this last month. I can’t take the exam if I burn out at the last minute.

The truth is this is hard, and it’s even harder when you’re a person that doesn’t have a great work life balance. I don’t know when to stop. It doesn’t help when you’re a perfectionist– I don’t know when to let go. However, it is time for me to ease up. I can’t continue at this pace. The chronic tension (and pain) in my shoulders and back is telling my otherwise. I love myself too much to let a test break any part of me.

Scholarly Insurgency, part 2

Ever since I came back from “Fugitive Futures: Grad Students of Color Un-Settling the University,” scholarly insurgency has been at the forefront of my mind along with a parade of seemingly never-ending questions. What does scholarly insurgency mean? What does it look like? How do we define it? Can we define it? What can we do to achieve it?

I’ve had more than one conversation with a friend in law school who is also interested in trying to parse together a working definition for the term. I went back to Roopika Risam’s #InsurgentAcademics thread and tried to find a common ground between all of the scholars she spotlighted during Black History Month. I found myself dancing around the term, never quite coming close enough to touch, trying to advance a theory, only to backtrack minutes later.

My friend pushed me on my explanation of insurgency in the Academy, asking me for specifics. Did it mean making space for invisibilized populations within the Academy? Did it mean redefining the canon? Did it mean tearing down the institutions already in place and building anew? My answers were yes, yes, and yes. It was making space, busting up the canon and institution building, but that’s not all– nor is it enough.

Then, I started to question where does insurgency happen? Can it happen within the Ivory Tower? Can change happen within the (constraining) parameters that this institution has already laid out? One of the questions that came up during “Fugitive Futures” was can such a conference be truly insurgent and still take place in a University, with University money and marketing tied up in it?

I realized that my answer varied– it depended on how many hoops I had to jump through that day; how many talented, and dare I say insurgent, scholars I saw leaving the Academy for lack of tenure track opportunities; how much red tape stood between me and my lofty goals. And one thing is for certain: anyone working within a system to change it needs to be mindful that this is not the only way to see change. It is dangerous to believe that only educators, only lawyers, or only community organizers can affect change. Scholarly insurgency needs to happen across disciplines, across communities, in a collective effort. When Angela Davis said, “Individual activity…is not revolutionary work” in her autobiography (162), I felt that. I believe that.

The first time I ever felt the impact of truly collective work was my fourth year at UVA when I was the stage manager for the Black Monologues. We were making “art for social change,” as my friend Taylor Lamb would say. I remember our first writing workshops for the show. A bunch of us sat in a dimly lit room in Clemons, writing for a predetermined period of time then taking turns to read out what we’d written. That was the first time I felt it. That was the first time I realized my words had impact, but I wouldn’t have been brave enough to do it had I not been surrounded by people who loved me exactly as I was and believed my words deserved to live in the world. It was the first time I let my words free. I gave them to Micah, who gave them to Madison and B, who shared them with the hundreds of people that came to see Black Monologues over the course of five nights worth of shows. I remember the ecstasy of finishing our first show, the thrill of seeing the line for entry snake around the entire theater and back, the responsiveness of the audience. It filled me up because in those moments, I knew our collective words were imprinting on the souls of everyone who came to see the show.

I tell this story because Black Monologues was every AAS class I’d ever had come alive.

Art is theory in practice.

It was all I needed to know I could write for the rest of my life.

That was scholarly insurgency. Our writings and performance were informed by the classes we’d taken, the books we’d read, the experiences we’d had, the dreams we dreamed. These were discoveries meant to be shared with the world, not just a small community of scholars sitting in a classroom together. I had discovered the academic impact of making art, and I was never letting go.

It had been insurgent to talk so openly about Black Love in the space in which we challenged the administration. To talk about queerness where we also talked about class, from those who got those green Cavalier Laundry bags to those whose parents came from nothing to give you everything. It was about Ghana as much as it was about Georgia, laughter and tears, police brutality and hair days. We stormed the Helms theater to tell the administration that we were there to “wreak havoc.”

And we did.

What we did came out of necessity. Black students needed a voice. They needed a space. They needed to be seen. We did what we felt was right and people responded.

That’s why now, as I write this blog, 3 years in, I’m doing it out of what I feel is necessity. I want to give Black women in graduate school a space where they can feel seen. I did what I felt was right and I have gotten positive feedback about it.

I’m not saying academics can’t change the world– I think we can, but we’ve got to get creative in how we go about it. The most insurgent groups I’ve ever been part of have been outside of the mainstream Academy. It’s been with art, it’s been in digital spaces, it been where you can define freedom for yourself. While I’m terribly proud of all my scholarship, this blog is my most insurgent scholarly work. It’s where I have built community. It’s where I come home to. It’s been where I have defined myself as a person and a scholar, rather than be defined.

My contribution to scholarly insurgency is writing and living my truth.


NOTE: For a good definition of academic insurgency, check out Roopika Risam’s website.

Book Review: THE DARK FANTASTIC by Ebony Thomas

“Are the cartographies of dreams truly universal?”

Ebony Thomas, The Dark Fantastic, 2

The Dark Fantastic: Race and the Imagination from Harry Potter to the Hunger Games drew me in from the very first time I saw its stunning cover. As a literature scholar, a Black studies enthusiast and Black fangirl supreme, I wanted– no, needed– this book. Someone had found a way to weave together several pieces of my own scholarly interests including race, literature, digitality and the fantastic. Despite being in the midst of reading for comprehensive exams, I couldn’t contain myself when I got an Advance Reader Copy of the book. One glance at the table of contents– which included chapters on my favorite witches, Hermione Granger and Bonnie Bennett– and I was hooked. I had found my scholarly Harry Potter.

The path through The Dark Fantastic is fairly straightforward, though Thomas takes the reader on an adventure to dystopian futures, far away realms and a magical present before leaving us at the gates of Hogwarts. In doing so, she encourages us to question our relationship to the fantastic, and more generally our relationship to reading and imagining. Is it as universal as we think? Why is there an imagination gap in literature for young people? Why is it that some young people of color “don’t like to read much?” (7)

In order to unravel some of these questions, Thomas first defines “the dark fantastic:” “the role that racial difference plays in our fantastically stored imagination.” (7) Thomas explains that she prefers the Fantastic to speculative fiction, noting that fantastic has a multiplicity of meanings. This distinction was important for me, as I am a scholar whose work will no doubt involve questions of the fantastic (or speculative) and I will have to decide which term more accurately describes my work. One thing that I particularly like about fantastic is that it’s not limited by “literature”– Thomas works on transmedia narratives that include books, television and film, not to mention fan culture, thus incorporating the digital.

Returning to the text, in the “Dark Other,” Thomas highlights a cycle that appears in a myriad of texts: “(1) spectacle, (2) hesitation, (3) violence, (4) haunting, and (5) emancipation.” Thomas revisits this pattern throughout each chapter, noting how each of these Dark girls (Rue from The Hunger Games, Gwen from Merlin, Bonnie Bennett from The Vampire Diaries, and Hermione Granger from Harry Potter) does or does not fall victim to it. Equally important to these discussions of the girls are the fans, often Dark themselves, that have critiques of the treatment of these characters.

Much of Thomas’ chapter on Rue from The Hunger Games is rooted in the cognitive dissonance the Dark Other can cause for (white) readers. A preconceived notion of what innocence looks like left some viewers of the film perturbed, to say the least, by the casting of a Black girl for the role. Thomas shows how Katniss becomes the moral center of the book only after Rue’s death, yet it is difficult for some to imagine that this young Dark girl can become impetus for a revolution. Like Rue’s, the chapter on Gwen traces her place in the dark fantastic cycle (or how she breaks it) before investigating fans’ relationships to the character. The main difference between these two is that Rue is written in her original text as Dark, while Gwen (Guinevere of Arthurian legend) is a fair maiden. For me, this brings up the question of race bending: is it or is it not an appropriate form of reimagining? To this point, there was a discussion on Twitter regarding a Black Batman. Fans circulated their actor choices for the role to which acclaimed author Nnedi Okorafor encouraged fans and writers to simply create more original Black characters. Shortly afterwards, writer Jamelle Bouie posted a thread in which he completely reimagined Batman’s origin story so that a Black Batman would contextually make sense. What Bouie did was imaginative and quite frankly, convincing– convincing enough to make me believe that we can have both new original characters and critical reimaginings, which is precisely what I believe has happened with Gwen in Merlin. As Thomas aptly states: “Gwen matters because she represents the dreams of brown girls who never saw themselves represented in fairy tales growing up.” (104)

Despite being an avid Potterhead and devoted lover of Hermione Granger, the chapter on Bonnie Bennett immediately caught my attention. The quickest way to infuriate me is to bring up the treatment of Bonnie in The Vampire Diaries; in fact,there is a video of me somewhere on the internet passionately discussing (hand gestures and all) this exact subject with my Branch Out students. Thomas knows that Bonnie “is not an easy character for mainstream audiences…to love” (109) and it’s hard to make a case for her. She’s sidelined, chastened, and used as a deus ex machina for many of the main gang’s numerous problems. But her character arc, in my opinion, best illustrates Thomas’ dark fantastic cycle: the viewer is introduced to Bonnie’s magic in the breath-taking “Feather Scene” (spectacle); negotiating Damon and Bonnie’s potential relationship by making her hate him (hesitation); Bonnie is repeatedly pushed to her physical limits with her magic, all in the name of helping her friends (violence); when she finally dies from exertion, Bonnie still haunts the show, serving as the anchor for the “Other Side” (haunting); and once she has saved everyone…again… Bonnie departs Mystic Falls for Africa (emancipation…?). It is unclear whether Bonnie was truly emancipated, and I would actually argue that she wasn’t. The writers’ decision to have Bonnie depart for Africa, which, as Thomas points out, was never something she r expressed any interest in, signals the Dark witch’s life to be an afterthought by them. But Thomas reminds us that “[d]ark girls like Bonnie are the problem and the solution, always.” (139) It’s time for more.

And honestly, I hope I’m part of the generation that participates in creating these worlds for Dark girls to revel in.

Thomas concludes with an ode to Black Hermione. Though she never imagined Hermione as anything but white, fans across the globe have taken J. K. Rowling’s description of brown eyes and frizzy hair to heart. The “Hermione Is Black” Tumblr tag shows us just how much audiences were imagining this possibility– “creative digital media communities” (165) have been doing this work for years.


Ebony Thomas took on the Herculean task of breaking apart and dissecting how and why we imagine, giving us convincing theorization and contextualization using her four case studies. She took us on a tour of her own imagination, which greatly resembles mine, weaving in narratives about her own journey grappling with the Dark Fantastic. She provided imaginative scholarship on subject matter near and dear to my heart. Most importantly, to me, Thomas provided an example of how I can combine all my passions into a coherent project, and for that, I am forever grateful. It is possible to engage both Morrison and Jenkins, Todorov and Whitted.

Thomas proves without a doubt that scholarship can be fun, creative, and if you’re lucky, fantastic.