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The Long Good-bye

As I reflect on the first half of the year, I’m increasingly aware of the increasingly infrequent nature of my blog post updates here. Last year, it made sense: the stress of the pandemic (which is not over, by the way) had everyone off their game. Even this past semester I could contribute my sporadic posting to my investment in my class. Still, as I adjusted to my reality, I simply couldn’t get back into the swing of my weekly posting habit that had characterized this blog since I started it almost five years ago.

But truths are truths, I think, and here’s one that’s bittersweet: I’m outgrowing Black Girl Does Grad School.

BGDGS has been my way of “speak myself into existence,” in the words of Jessica Marie Johnson. It was me making sense of a world whose rules and infrastructures I didn’t yet know or understand and yet was expected to make my way in. In a lot of ways, the start to my journey into academia reminds me now of finding myself in France as a twenty-one year old: I knew French in theory, but the shock being dropped down into a country where I only understood every fifth word sometimes and overwhelmed by how different things were, but still expected to find your way to the hotel by yourself, almost short-circuited my brain. The feeling was not unlike how I’d felt in early grad seminars—only understanding half the words and having to learn unspoken cultural norms simply by doing.

But also like my time studying abroad, as time went on, the more I began to find myself in a rhythm. I could find my way from the hotel to class, to my favorite cafes and restaurants…I didn’t always completely understand every word that was spoken to me, but I increasingly was able to get the gist and respond accordingly.

That’s been me in graduate school; every experience help a new piece of cultural knowledge fall into place, making each new thing a little easier to manage. I’ve always used BGDGS as a crutch, to help me fill in the rest of the blanks…but…I guess I don’t need it as much anymore.

In France, I was able to make my way through a world that wasn’t mine but that I found things I loved in. And then, as classes ended, I was reminded that I was only a visitor in this world that I had learned to navigate and love…and that soon, it would be time to leave.

I feel now, as I did then: a little disconcerted that this chapter of my life is almost over, relieved to leave, and also…grateful for all that it taught me.

This isn’t the good-bye; more like the beginning of the end. I still have time. I still have a pretty sizable list of things to finish, least of all finishing up and defending my dissertation. And I’m going to want to write about these things. But this is it, what I’ve been working towards. The finish line is a ways off, but in sight. After several years, I get the sense that these last few months will fly by.

And then it will be time for the good-bye.

But at this moment, I’m realizing that most of the blog posts that come after today will likely be the last of their kind. The last dissertation check-ins, the last reading updates, the last gratitude posts…This is the beginning of the end of an era.

BGDGS has gotten me through many a tough moment. It’s given me space to reflect, and helped me build a flourishing community of folks outside of my institution who are invested in seeing me succeed. It’s given me the tools to ask for help and help others. It’s been a lifeline.

But as I start transitioning out of this “pot” and into a new one, I know that this is one piece of my life that will stay in this chapter. BGDGS is where I learned to be a writer and what it means to have an audience; nothing will ever change that.

So wherever I go next, whatever I write next, this will always be where it all started.

Reflections of an Incoming Black Graduate Student Association President

I decided to run for president of my institution’s Black Graduate Student Association.

Spoiler alert: I won.

My friends went through a range of responses, from being anxious about how much stuff I already do to referring to me immediately as “Madame President.” Some folks thought it was a snap decision, while my Dad said, “Well it’s about time.”

The truth is, I’ve been in a growth process surrounding Black student organizations since I was on Black Student Alliance’s board at UVA seven years ago. I served there for one year, and due to my declining mental health, I quit the summer before my third year.

And as much as I’d love to contribute my decision to leave that space solely to my mental health, I also had a hard time with the way men’s voices were privileged, the “in-groupness” of it all and what I felt, at the time, was a performance of activism. I felt like there wasn’t space for me, not realizing that I had the agency to make space for myself.

So I left.

Still, the imprint of my time there remained. I stayed in touch with a fourth year who had also been on BSA and went on to pursue a doctorate in English, and she became a huge resource for me throughout my graduate school journey. It showed me the beginnings of what I would come to understand as a number of interwoven Black communities, rather than one group that could not be effectively serviced as such. And, in some ways, most importantly, Claudrena Harold’s, our BSA advisor’s, teachings about the activist and advocacy roots of Black student groups at Predominantly White Institutions lingered long after I had removed myself from BSA.

For the rest of time at UVA, I became very involved in smaller scale organizations. I worked as an intern with the Outreach Office of Admission and the Ridley Scholarship Foundation. I invested in the French House and Language House Council. And I became the stage manager for the Black Monologues.

In an institution where titles were collected like souvenir coins, working with these organizations helped me to undo harmful notions of leadership without purpose. Though often unrecognized, the work of my last two years were the most fulfilling. It taught me to invest wisely and in communities you already belong to.

Bloom where you are planted, but also make sure the garden others inherit is well tended for them when they come along.

By grad school, which you will know if you’ve been following along with BGDGS, I was feeling lost again. I resented feeling forced to participate in my program’s student organization given that I felt the program often was a place of hostility for me. So I turned elsewhere for support at the institution, frequenting the Black Law Student Association gatherings and getting involved with a short lived Black undergraduate student publication, but nothing seemed to stick.

My solution was to turn to the digital. You know that story: I worked for a few years building up my network of Black graduate students and Black faculty to turn to at other institutions through Black Girl Does Grad School and Twitter. Between my thriving digital life and the various pockets I began to occupy at school, most notably with the Lemon Project, I began to feel more supported.

During this time, the Black Graduate Student Association began to emerge in a new iteration. It had once existed at the institution, but with little documentation, it was difficult to know much more about it. Madeline Williams worked to get this new formation of the organization off the ground, and in my thirst for community, I began to frequent meetings.

I would be lying if I say I hadn’t considered running for the executive board over the few years of the organization’s existence. But the timing was never right: first I was in the midst of comps, then trying to complete a first draft of the dissertation. So I settled into being a fairly active member.

But this year, two big shifts occurred: I joined the Arts & Sciences Diversity, Equity and Inclusion committee (CDEI) and I began talking to my friend, Taylor, very seriously about transformative work.

Though seemingly unrelated, the two were inextricable. Through the CDEI, I gained the language to identify and articulate what I didn’t want in a university community. It then gave me ideas for possible solutions to these problems. By the end of the fall semester, I was able to articulate with ease the issues with pipelines, climate, and siloed diversity work, which was bolstered by my formal training in being able to articulate how power dynamics work from American Studies. But I quickly became frustrated that though we were very good at identifying, articulating and offering possible solutions, there seemed to be a disconnect, at least for me, between having a firm understanding of how these infrastructures work to disenfranchise and oppress, and breaking down solutions into actionable items.

In a word, I was faced with the gap between my values and my actions.

My friendship with Taylor has turned into an incubator for transformative thought. She makes me think harder and want to move with more intention. Before having these conversations with her, before we began our All About Love book club, I knew abolition made sense, I knew how love practices worked in theory, but I didn’t know how to center those ideas in my daily life. I didn’t know how to act on them.

What I began to understand was that transformation in our society begins at a community level. It begins with us practicing being loving towards each other. It begins with investing in each other. Small actions will lead to larger change.

Perhaps, I thought, I wouldn’t be able to take down the Academy, but I could cultivate a garden in community with others in which we are cared for and valued. Even though I plan to leave the academic space, I know others will come, so I began to ask: what tangible things can I do to make sure those who come to occupy this space will feel cared for and valued?

In doing this, in centering communication, connection, care and celebration, we can build a sustainable environment for us, outside of the structures of the Academy, where we matter first. And perhaps that won’t break the system down… but actively choosing care may disrupt it.

In that break, we have the potential to replace what doesn’t work with something new.

What I propose is a building on the great work already done and being done. I’m simply asking: How can we connect Black graduate students to resources outside of their BGSA and their school? How do we establish long term connections? How do we provide networks of care for our Black grad students? What can we do to ensure academic success and value the work that Black grads are doing?

I think some of the answers are to build on and with. Five years at my institution has shown a number of pockets throughout the university that are doing really amazing work. We need to be working with them. We need to, if possible, find financial support for the research Black grads do, as well as provide venues for us to share our findings in supportive environments. I can tap into my digital networks and skills to help us create a repository of resources for us so that we always have access to things like local childcare, hair services, and churches.

But one of the most important things I can do is to make it clear that this is a space that values you. You deserve to be valued and cared for. So how can we work on infrastructures to better the climate for existing, incoming and prospective students, so that they know they’re valued?

I definitely don’t have all the answers, but I’m so willing to try.

It’s time to make the digital, physical.

Dissertation Check-In #5: Rejecting “Business as Usual”

As always, when I sit down to write for BGDGS these days, I have to wonder what factors led to all the space between the last post and the one you are reading. General pandemic panic is more than enough reason, but in recent weeks/days, I’ve also been contending with an immediate family hospitalization, my own illness and, of course, the coup. The build-up of difficult feelings stemming from impossible situations has pushed me to a breaking point.

Naturally, when you don’t think you can take anymore, someone or something always comes along and pushes you right over the brink.

One of my committee members had what I’m sure were valid comments on my dissertation first draft that unfortunately were couched in stinging language. In a moment where I couldn’t take much more, that was the thing that convinced me that I couldn’t do this anymore. After spending the whole day prior writing affirmations and goals and timelines for how and when and why I would finish my project, not twenty-four hours later, a single ping of my inbox destroyed all the progress I’d made in building my confidence.

And so I cried.

I cried because in a world where everything is on the verge of shattering for literally everyone at any given moment, it’s still business as usual for academia: enforcing the gatekeeping practices that keep white supremacy happy and well-cared for in this institution. I still have innumerable deadlines, diversity and equity committee meetings to attend, research to conduct, writing to do, all with the expectation that I will continue to give and give and give and give because if I don’t, the threat of an ill-defined “they” will come to reject my access to the Ivory Tower.

On a good day, it is the business of the academy, fueled by the power of white supremacy, to keep us busy and run down so that we can’t fight back (to think through and paraphrase a sentiment by Toni Morrison). It is the business of this institution to keep us preoccupied with trying to make space for our research, our shared knowledge, our work, while tending the needs of our students and often fighting for justice, which we do with love, so that we will not, cannot, take these small moments of rupture in stride. Because the small moment is one of a thousand or more, and this was the weight which caused the collapse of a back not designed to carry this impossible load. I find my day to day in the academy saturated with moments that give me pause, that strike me like a hot iron, that cause me to recoil, and I often bare them quietly. This is business as usual in the academy.

It is not business as usual.

We (Black folks, Indigenous folks, queer folks, women, etc. etc.) deal with aggression and violence and trauma on a near daily basis in this institution, filled with folks who should know better, and theoretically do on paper. We deal with this unkindness (an understatement) on a good day, and it is truly shocking to me that some people find it in their hearts to do this in a pandemic.

Y’all are really choosing violence in a pandemic?

I was recently in a roundtable discussion for the MLA on access in the academy, where we discussed the various ways this institution is designed to prey on precarity, which in turn keeps so many people (who are not rich, cis, white, male) out. We discussed the ways that the pandemic exacerbates many of the issues that already exist in the academy. And it remains grating to me that for many people, the issues that they are now experiencing because of the pandemic that force them to think about and center their students and their well-being, for instance, are questions and concerns that folks who teach in the margins have been speaking and writing about forever.

The idea that this moment has opened the eyes of many to injustice and inequity incenses me, because that tells me with great clarity what we already knew: that the default until now was to operate in the status quo of this institution, which I have outlined as being fueled by white supremacy, among other metrics of oppression.

I snapped over the comments on my dissertation, because in between the lines, there was the sentiment that there is no place for this project I have chosen to undertake. It doesn’t work, not because it lacks rigorous intellectual inquiry, but because the form is not one in which they have been groomed to understand as “scholarship.” It reinscribed harmful notions that there is no place for differing expressions of cultural knowledge.

How many times must we fight this fight before we move on from this battleground?

What is the cost?

I recently tweeted that my personal feed is nothing but arts and crafts updates because I’ve reached a point where if I talk about my work/dissertation or grad school writ large, there is a high likelihood that I will start crying. A friend pointed out that this feeling is a largely accepted part of the process.

I reject the notion that I should be driven to tears by this work on a near daily basis and that this is normal.

This is not business as usual.

This institution does not get to continue to ask of me when its general orientation towards me is one of hostility and violence.

This is not business as usual; nor should it be.