Category Archives: The Journey

Week 11: A Critical Self-Reflection on my Fighting Spirit

It’s time for some critical self-reflection.

I’ve always been a self-starter, and a little loud, probably to the chagrin of my mom, who had to work at the school where I was always doing something. I distinctly remember mobilizing the entire third grade to sign a petition against soggy cafeteria trays, which in my eight-year-old mind, ruined the sanctity of the chicken nugget. That same school year, I remember coming home determined to write my Black History Month report on the first Black woman involved in civil rights who wasn’t Rosa Parks that I could find: Angela Yvonne Davis. Then, at age ten, I decided that my fourth grade class needed a school magazine. So, naturally, some friends and I organized a bake sale, the proceeds of which went to the annual fair when the plans for the magazine proved too difficult.

By high school I had only gotten louder; spending a great deal of time fighting against the initial structure of the International Baccalaureate (IB) Program in Suffolk, Virginia. As my class would be the first through, we dubbed ourselves “The Guinea Pigs.” I wanted more flexibility (at the time I wanted to do the Governor’s School of the Arts, which I was waitlisted for classical piano, and IB); more class offerings, including an IB music class; and I wanted to keep our IB director, but budget cuts, budget cuts, budget cuts. I spent a great deal of time ranting in our IB director’s office, to my friends, my teachers, at school board meetings, to anyone who would listen. We lost student after student during the pre-IB years (freshman and sophomore year) until we were down to the sixteen that crossed the stage together in 2012.

I used to be loud, I used to demand change, I used to fight hard.

My fighting spirit came and went as I ran the gauntlet that was the University of Virginia (UVA). I spent a year on the Black Student Alliance executive board, and, disenchanted with the bureaucracy and male domination despite the female majority, promptly resigned the summer before my third year. The often hours long meetings in which I had to take ruthless comments, being talked over or ignored had finally taken its toll on me. So I left, determined to find another way to make a difference. To be sure I found ways: I became a leader in the language house community, eventually making my way up to RA of the French House; I took point in helping organizing my scholarship weekend in the spring of 2015 and 2016; I took on more responsibility in my position as an intern in the Outreach Office of Admission; and I became stage manager of a show that was more of a movement, the Black Monologues.

I’ll be brutally honest, UVA beat a lot of the fight out of me. Between the constant pressure to perform, the isolation that came with being the only Black person in many of the classes and spaces I inhabited, and the severe depression that I fought most of my four years there, it was nothing short of a miracle that I made it out of Charlottesville alive. Living there was rough. My class lived through the disappearance of Hannah Graham, the Rolling Stone article, and the Martese Johnson incident. It felt like I spent most of my upperclassmen years at rallies and vigils, condemning racially motivated brutality and sexual assault, then alternatively mourning the loss of classmates. In addition to all of these horrifying events, I, the golden child of Suffolk, Virginia, was learning for the first time what it meant to fail spectacularly at UVA. I will never forget the string of rejections I got my first year there, one after another, until I finally got a rejection in January 2013, which prompted a panic attack so severe I ended up calling the counseling center for an appointment that day.

It’s my third year out of UVA, and I think I’m still undoing some of the damage to my thought processes that happened while I was there. I don’t think I could pinpoint the moment that undid the fight in me, but I know when I recognized how broken I was: when I did Black Monologues. Black Monologues was a salve to my soul, my chance to simply be. To make art, and to be moved by it. To be in a community with Black people who understood me and loved me. Pouring myself into words for the first time in years, building something, saved me. It healed the wound I didn’t even know I had. Black Monologues gave me back my voice, and even amplified it.

Black Monologues built me up just enough to send me into the world armed with at least part of the confidence which UVA had stolen from me. But I’m realizing now, even with part of my confidence restored, I am still not the girl who demanded change from her school board. I’m not even the girl who mobilized the third grade.

Somewhere in that journey, I decided my moves would be in silence; that my calling was teaching and writing, and those would be my contributions. I decided to use my “self-care card” to self-preserve rather than fight back, but this week in particular has me questioning how I feel about that. I don’t know if I like that I’ve become a silent, but engaged observer; intervening only when particularly provoked or when I “have the time.” I consider myself to be strategic with my energy, picking and choosing my battles with care. Mental health wise, it’s been the right decision, but I do have to ask myself, am I being true to myself– am I feeding my spirit?

My tactics have changed and so have I. William & Mary has brought me to the Lemon Project: A Journey of Reconciliation, where I do a lot of work educating people on enslaved labor and Jim Crow segregation at William & Mary. I work with and teach students; help put on programming; run our social media; but most importantly, I learn and share. And when I realized the Academy might not make room for me, I decided to write my way in on this very blog; working countless hours to make sure that BGDGS became a space where Black women could share and fellowship together. I may not be making statements at school board meetings anymore, but I’m still working, moving slowly and intentionally.

Sometimes I wonder if my sixteen year old self would be proud of the person I’ve become.

I think she would be. I’ve taken my fight to paper, armed with a pen. I think she would be glad to see that I transformed my fighting energy into building.

Week 9: Redirecting and Expanding Mid-Journey

If you read this thread that I posted on Twitter Wednesday night, then you’re familiar with the story I am about to tell.

Two years ago, I would have told you quite confidently that I was not a digital humanist. My first year of graduate school was established scholars telling me which boxes I fit into: I was a cultural historian, I was an intellectual historian, I was a comics studies scholar, I was a digital humanist. I scoffed at all of them because while I might have identified as a comics studies scholar, that was not all that my work was, and in fact I preferred to self-identify as a literary scholar who happened to do comics. Even though identifying as a comics studies scholar sort of fit, I knew with certainty that I was no kind of historian– which left me with the mystery of the digital humanities.

The first advisor that I was matched with when I came into William & Mary was a Digital Humanist (capital D, capital H). Based on my writing sample, which was an exploration of identity in Issa Rae’s YouTube series “Awkward Black Girl,” I think it was assumed that I would want to come to do digital humanities, media studies and literature– in that order. The truth? That was the only 20 page paper I’d written in English during undergrad so it was the only thing I had on hand to submit. Former French major problems.

During my first advising meeting, my advisor asked me all kinds of questions about long term goals, publications I was hoping to write, conferences I wanted to attend, books and articles that I hadn’t read. I felt so in over my head that the only possible answer was to retreat into the world that I knew and had always excelled in: literature. Instead of diving head first into an unknown that I was attracted to, I crawled back into my comfort zone. I switched advisors, stopped going to Equality Lab meetings and I kept my head down.

I did well in my comfort zone. I did my master’s thesis. It was passable. It was interesting. It was exciting. After I wrote that thesis, however, my energy started to fizzle out. Then came Race, Memory and the Digital Humanities last fall. It was my first time being in an academic space with so many women, particularly Black women, doing incredible work. Watching rockstars like Gabrielle Foreman, Jessica Marie Johnson and Marisa Parham dazzle the audience was the equivalent of watching academic Beyoncés perform. I knew I wanted to be like them, but I didn’t know how. At the time I was still not considering myself a digital humanist; I was an outside observer, a literary scholar come to watch the festivities.

Another year passed. No conference presentations, no talks, no potential publications on the horizon. I told myself that I was just feeling burnt out after my Masters, which is probably at least partially true, but really I was feeling uninspired by my work. I was existing, but I wasn’t excelling.

Enter “Intentionally Digital, Intentionally Black.” I enrolled in an Introduction to Digital Humanities class and my professor urged me to go to “Intentionally Digital, Intentionally Black.” I knew Catherine Knight Steele from Race, Memory and the Digital Humanities and from Twitter, so I knew it would be a good time. Once I got there and was surrounded once again by Black women scholars doing incredible work, I finally started to understand where I fit. I was inspired by the words of Timeka Tounsel and Grace Gipson and their work on Black women digital content creators. I saw work that I could contribute to based on my own identity as a blogger. They showed me an opportunity to work smarter not harder. My former advisor has been telling me from the beginning that my identities as a blogger and a scholar do not have to be mutually exclusive but I didn’t have a model for how I could have them work together. “Intentionally Digital, Intentionally Black” gave me models. Black digital humanities stitched my identities together.

And then I read Steele’s articles on Black women bloggers and for the first time, I finally had a good answer for “who do you want to be in scholarly community and conversation with?” My former advisor told me that half the battle of grad school is finding the communities where you feel supported. That’s what helps you finish. My community is in digital humanities. It’s where I fit.

So am I digital humanist? Not yet, I still have a lot of work to do– lots to read, lots to write, lots to think through. But I’ve decided to redirect, or even just add to, my identity as a scholar. I’m still figuring it out. But for the first time in a long time, I feel confident that I’m moving down the right path. This feels right. It feels both good and hard all at once, but it also feels very, very right.

So hi, digital humanists, it took me a while to realize this is where I belonged but I’m here now and I’m ready to get to work.