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Fade to Black: Double Consciousness/Double Grace

Aristotle and I have a…difficult relationship.

On my second day of class, after being assigned to read Aristotle’s Poetics, I was asked my opinion on the work. My response: F**k this white man. If you know me, I know what you’re thinking, “Did Micah just cuss!? Micah neverrrr cusses!” I was just as shook as you are and actually cried later because I felt like I didn’t rep Christ well in that moment. In reading that text, I felt like so much of the work that I love was erased, dismissed, and undervalued. Poetics is regarded as one of, if not the most, important texts for dramatic writers. Something scared me and angered me that this was the only measure by which my work might be judged. But if the tongue is a reflection of the heart, then that moment scared me even more.

So let’s call this my heart check.

Truth is, I don’t actually hate Aristotle. I hate the idea that writers are expected to worship this white man who presents only a limited perspective on storytelling. But if I’m being honest, he has a lot of valuable things to say. I also don’t hate rules—I just hate the systems of supremacy that create them. I mean, who am I kidding? Is there a film that follows three act structure more closely than Love & Basketball? Is A Raisin in the Sun not a Well-Made-Play? Does every episode of A Different World not have two turns and a comic block?

I think that I’m neither the artist that Aristotle nor Amiri Baraka would have hoped for. Horizontally, I’m somewhere in the middle, and vertically, I’m climbing deeper into my soul with every piece of art I make.

My verbalized disdain for Aristotelian ideas is rooted more in a desire to be seen, to be understood. If you can’t see my melanin infused middle ground, then surely you can see the polar opposite of something you’re already familiar with. Like in my middle school days, there are moments when I coon myself into visibility. And it’s a really bad classroom survival tactic. It crushes my intelligence and light under the foot of the white gaze.

It’s a tactic born of insecurity and also very real frustration. Let me be clear, I may have moments of being combative, but I am always substantive (at least I try to be). In his seminal work, The Souls of Black Folk, W.E.B. DuBois coined the term “Double Consciousness.”

“It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness, an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder. The history of the American Negro is the history of this strife- this longing to attain self-conscious manhood, to merge his double self into a better and truer self. In this merging he wishes neither of the older selves to be lost. He does not wish to Africanize America, for America has too much to teach the world and Africa. He wouldn’t bleach his Negro blood in a flood of white Americanism, for he knows that Negro blood has a message for the world. He simply wishes to make it possible for a man to be both a Negro and an American without being cursed and spit upon by his fellows, without having the doors of opportunity closed roughly in his face.”

Growing up in middle America, then attending a PWI for undergrad, Double Consciousness has always been a part of my life (as it is for most Black people everywhere. Thx yte sprmcy). But this idea has never felt so poignant as it does in my first year of grad school. Let me share some scenarios:

When you say that your film is Black Film A crossed with Black Film B and hear crickets in the room, but somehow everyone has seen that obscure Czech film from the 70’s; When you spend more time discussing a white woman’s view of Black womanhood than a literal play by a literal Black woman about Black womanhood; When your professor tells you that your play is, in fact, not a play, because they’ve read none of the seven+ plays that you’re drawing inspiration from.

And here’s the catch, you are expected to know the works of white artists, established or emerging, like the back of your hand. Double Consciousness means double the work. Black artists, there are [at least] two canons that you have to know. The Black one that gives you life, speaks to your history and your soul, and the white one that gets you audiences and a degree. And let me add these massive caveats, you are no less Black if you are inspired by white artists and this is much more complicated than this binary. But for me, it’s a matter of creating within two worlds. It’s something that I’m going to have to reconcile as long as I’m in grad school, if not for the rest of my artistic life. What does that look like in the classroom? Being silent or invisible or being loud and hyper visible? Often it feels like a deadly combination.

I went for hyper-visibility again.

Recently, I had an assignment to bring in a produced scene (something that you’d be able to see in theaters or on tv), along with a script of that scene, so that we could compare the two as a class. After almost a semester of doing this exercise, I got tired of being one of the only people that’s never seen a given white-people-famous clip. I wanted to bring something that excited me, that I was familiar with, was helpful to my process, and reflects the kind of work that I want to make. So, I brought in Kahlil Joseph’s good kid m.A.A.d city film—which was originally a dual channel projection piece—and the lyrics to Kendrick Lamar’s “Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst,” from the good kid album—which Lamar calls a short film.

It’s one of my favorite films and Kahlil Joseph is certainly my favorite director. But if I’m being honest, the very real creative and academic benefits of unpacking a piece like that were accompanied by some tongue in cheek. (And if it wasn’t already clear, I wore my Toni Cade Bambara t-shirt). But I was scared. Like actually so nervous my hands were shaking and I was talking faster than I already do. I over-explained myself because I wanted it to be clear that I had receipts. Black Girls ALWAYS need receipts. Sometimes it feels like that’s the only way that anyone will listen, let alone take us seriously. Then we read and watched the clip.

And it was okay; I was okay.

People shared thoughts, asked questions, offered alternative interpretations. One kid even challenged my interpretation of Kendrick’s album. It felt like most of my fellow artists were there with me. Like even those who may not have understood at least cared and valued my right as a fellow learner to discuss the things that matter to me. I didn’t have all of the answers, but I also felt less naked and alone in the classroom than I have in a while. (Is this my Randall Pearson moment?)

So @God, thank you.

For the courage to bring in something that felt like a piece of myself and who I want to be. For the conviction that Black art does and has always mattered. For confidence in You that reminds me that I deserve to be seen. Jesus, You’re the light at the end of the tunnel.

To all my Stage-D-Cadets, thank you for engaging in a real way. Know that for your Black (and other POC…but we’re talking about Black Girls here) classmates, that’s a real gift. It was the first time that my voice felt fully present in the room. It felt like I wedged a little path for myself and my work in this program.

And for my Black Girls pursuing or thinking about pursuing an MFA, a few proverbs for your edification:

  1. Be your bold/beautiful/Black/brilliant self. As artists, we come to institutions in search of instruction, refinement, and mentorship. But what they can’t teach you is your soul, your imagination. It’s easy to feel like making something “good” means adopting their structures and losing your spark. That’s just not true. I’m of the opinion that an MFA program shouldn’t be a factory of cookie cutter artists. Be humble and eager to learn, but also be the master of your own art.
  2. Protect your spirit, your work, and your seeds. Some folks like to call this “guarding your heart.” I’ve come to find that that’s about more than not leaving yourself vulnerable to damaging relationships. That thing that makes you excited? Maybe that’s not the thing to get in a heated debate about. Maybe your idea is so dope that they can’t understand it yet. Maybe that seed of your next masterpiece needs time to grow before it’s pruned. I know I’ve walked away from many a writing class feeling physically ill and disoriented because the experience of having something so dear to me be ripped apart was lowkey traumatizing. My ideas are my babies. That’s not to say that you don’t need the criticism (trust me, girl, you do. You’re incredible, but not perfect, so you better get your money’s worth), but you need to know the proper time for it. Give yourself time to love what God dropped in your imagination. Because if you don’t, who will?
  3. Do the work. I know you’re mad that Susan in your film class has never heard of Julie Dash in her life, but looks at you sideways when you haven’t seen the 17th Rocky movie. But, to paraphrase Ravynn, we have to be the artists to get these degrees so that a Black Girl ten years from now doesn’t have to fight for professors to value her sources of inspiration. You are going to be tired, you are going to be frustrated, but these trials come to make you stronger. This is really a note to self to double down on my commitment to doing double the work, so keep me in check, y’all. Capital F freedom is too important for me not to be the best artist that I can be. I like to think that someone down the line will be happy that I did.

For any of this to work, my heart’s gotta be in the right place. I pray that God’s Kingdom come, that reconciliation would be real, but sometimes wonder how much I mean it. Is my armor more valuable than my healing? Well, sometimes I make it that way. How can I defend my voice and the tradition from which I come without sacrificing my mandate and desire to show love to literally everyone? That’s a struggle every single time I walk into the classroom or share my work. But if my journey is hard and my consciousness is double, is it also not true that Christ reconciled this conundrum on the cross? (spoiler: that one is in fact true). I don’t have all of the answers, I’m finding pieces of them everyday. As for me and Aristotle’s relationship status: it’s complicated. But, in the last weeks of my first semester of grad school, I’m finding enough hope to know that the journey of making this art is worth figuring out this whole Black Girl thing.

Week 14: My Scholarly Philosophy

I often ask myself what type of scholar I want to be, and not in a hypothetical way. I ask myself this question so that I can think through how I write, for whom I write, and why I write. I ask myself this so that my scholarship matches the way in which I live my life, so I’m not just words, but so that I live my beliefs as well. I also ask myself this so that I know how I will orient myself in my classrooms and how I will approach teaching my future students.

In order to figure out what type of scholar I want to be, I often look to senior scholars for examples. This process was admittedly very stressful at the start of my graduate school career because I was not sure how I wanted to market myself as a scholar. As time has gone by, the more experience I get, the more I read, and the more people I interact with, the more I can add to my “scholarly philosophy,” or my personal approach to scholarship and how I will maneuver the Academy.

This time when I asked myself what type of scholar I want to be, it was a direct response to reading Dr. Roopika Risam’s new book, New Digital Worlds: Postcolonial Digital Humanities in Theory, Praxis, and Pedagogy. The arguments themselves were compelling, but I found myself captivated by her methodology. As advertised, the book was indeed equal parts theory to praxis to pedagogy, and I found this endeavor to be postcolonial in and of itself. I admired the way she took care with her terms, sacrificing no nuance in her quest for clarity and readability, something I am to do myself. In the book’s orientation towards both postcolonial scholars and digital humanities scholars, arguments had to be clear to both audiences, resulting in using many rich examples of digital humanities projects which do postcolonial work to illustrate her point. For me, the high point of the text was the chapter on pedagogy, which offered very tangible ways to bring the postcolonial and the digital into classrooms to spoke to my heart, such as using comics, editing Wikipedia pages, creating podcasts and social media pages for characters from books. Risam ends with a “Call to Action:” a cautiously hopeful rallying cry, which I heard and took to heart. In her work, Dr. Risam gave me a model for the type of scholarship I ultimately would like to do.

I want to write scholarship that is rigorous, but still accessible.

I want to cultivate a dynamic classroom environment in which my students feel safe to question, learn, grow and create.

I never want to be trapped by my own words; that is to say, I want to build infrastructure to change the way we think about higher education and knowledge production and its dissemination, not just write about change.

I want to engage in critical making as it pertains to world building in the real world. I want to create communities, scholarly and otherwise, where people are cared for and nurtured.

I want to be an advocate for my students.

Fortunately, I have had a whole host of good examples of scholars who have shown me how to do the work I desire. Dr. Roopika Risam gave me a model of how to write book that does that work. Dr. Jessica Marie Johnson has shown me how to think critically about citational politics; how to express gratitude for everyone and everything that has impacted your thinking. Dr. P. Gabrielle Foreman and Dr. Lynn Weiss have shown me how to truly care for students. Dr. Liz Losh has shown me good mentorship, how to organize a careful syllabus, and how to think ahead.

Thanks to them, I look forward to creating classes which incorporate theory, guest speakers, project analysis and critical making; classes that experiment; and which take input from the students. I am already looking forward to teaching an Afrofuturism class that draws from literature, film, comics and music, while employing digital humanities final project ideas. I aim to be firm but reasonable, rigorous but kind in the classroom. My goal with teaching will not only be to teach my students the content, but to also have them consider new ways of showcasing that knowledge. There will always be something to be said for a well-written paper, but why does knowledge production and dissemination have to know bounds when the content defies imagination?

I will write the traditional dissertation so that one day I can advocate for the grad student that wants to write a novel, create a digital humanities project, or start a nonprofit for their degree. But this is not to say that my dissertation will not have a signature Ravynn flair.

I will find a way to not only write peer reviewed articles but fiction as well, and I will start that magazine. Making art, not just analyzing it, is going to be a critical part of my praxis.

I am going to get through this doctoral program and I am going to demystify this process for those that come after me. Assuming I work with graduate students, I am going to be the mentor that asks my students to co-author with me, that helps them network with my peers, that sits down with them and helps them chart a trajectory through grad school. And assuming I work with undergrads, I am going to hope that they leave my classroom better than they did before walking in.

It comes down to this: while I was preparing my comps lists, I showed my dad what I was working on. After the shock of seeing that I had to read nearly 300 books in less than a year wore off, he asked me, “Is reading these books going to make you a better person?” I hesitated because the truth was, I knew this process was going to make me smarter, but ultimately he wanted to know if this would help me become a good person. So, I told him the truth: “I hope so.”

The truth is I just want to be a good person that does some good in this world. I hope having a philosophy for how I will approach my chosen career path will help me do just that.

Week 13: Gratitude

I will be the first to admit that as the semester draws to a close, I spend less time writing my weekly Black Girl Does Grad School posts, and more time pouring over books and articles to sustain one of the multiple arguments for my final papers. I have spent much of the last couple of weeks stressing and wondering how it’s all going to get done.

This is my fifth semester as a graduate student, so you’d think I would know by now that it always gets done. Some way, somehow, I always manage to pull through to the end of the semester.

As it stands currently, I have three more class sessions in which I have to be present. 8.5 hours of class time standing between me and the end of the semester– me and the last time I ever have to be in classes as a student (Unless, of course, I decide to pursue a MFA in creative writing after I finish this whole enterprise, but that, my friends, is a beast of an entirely different nature).

As I approach the end of this stage of my doctoral program, I think it would be a great moment to practice some gratitude for everybody and everything that has gotten me through the past two and a half years.

Thank you:

  • First, to my parents. Thanks Mom, for always listening patiently when I called home with some story about miscegenation law from the 19th century. Thanks Dad, for throwing in your two cents when I read off some of my Critical Race Theory texts to you, confirming or denying these very abstract theoretical claims from your personal perspective.
  • To my family generally, for supporting my education however you could– from all the Barnes and Noble gift cards to showing up at my graduations (But like shout out to TJ in particular for never missing a single important occasion even after you moved away).
  • To my best friends, Micah, Kelsey, Alexis, Leah and Kaili. Y’all are the sisters I always wanted. The best friends I could ever ask for. Thank you for all the texts, the phone calls, the FaceTimes, the meet ups, the coffee dates. Thank you for your time and support.
  • To my favorite professors– Dr. Weiss, Dr. Ely, Dr. Losh, Dr. McGovern, Dr. Donnor– for always pushing me; for challenging me to think deeper and harder; for knowing that I am capable of more and always encouraging me to show that; and for believing in me as I am, and me as I will be.
  • To my Master’s committee: Dr. Knight, Dr. Weiss, and Dr. McGovern
  • To my Comps committee: Dr. Weiss, Dr. Losh, Dr. Pinson and Dr. Ely
  • To James Padilioni, Jr. Thank you for being a role model for me. Always trying to get like you.
  • To Chris Slaby (and Cameron Slaby) for all of the stimulating conversations and for always welcoming me into your home.
  • To those in the digital humanities/twitter community who have welcomed me, valued me and my contributions and encouraged me: Nathan Dize, Dr. Parr, Dr. Wernimont, Dr. Phillips, Dr. Johnson, Dr. Foreman, Dr. Steele, Dr. Lothian
  • To the many Black graduate student digital networks that I remain on the fringes of, but whose work I admire.
  • The Lemon Project Team, particularly Dr. Allen, Dr. Sarah Thomas, and Dr. Vineeta Singh, for caring for me so diligently.
  • Dr. Wulf for being supportive of me and my endeavors.
  • Thanks, as always, to Dean Gregory and Ms. Cathy for always happily responding to my (sporadic) calls and emails.
  • To Professor Harold. I wouldn’t be where I am had it not been for several conversations with you on the Corner, in your office and around Grounds.
  • To everyone involved in any way with Black Girl Does Grad School. I LOVE Y’ALL. Y’all are making my dreams come true every day.

But also, thank you:

  • My lovebug, Genghis. You’re getting an honorary degree when I get this PhD, bud.
  • To the staff of Aromas on North Boundary. The caffeine fix keeps me sane.
  • To Charles Benbow and the staff of The Coffeehouse. When I do go, I stay all afternoon and work, drinking cup after cup of delicious coffee. Thanks for the good drinks and ambience.
  • To Lorelai and Rory, for keeping me company so many difficult evenings.
  • The Library, ILL and the librarians. Y’all are the real MVPs.

…Did I already thank my parents? Eric and Faye, seriously, thanks for giving me the world.