My relationship with academia is fraught. The years I have spent in graduate school have been filled with intellectual epiphanies, community building in digital spaces, and a lot of time to search for answers to my long list of questions. Instead of answers, I have often found more questions. Some have been intellectually generative, and push my scholarship further; others underscore the limitations on freedom in academia for a Black girl.
As a result of time in the academy and currently participating in more service work than I ever have, the questions I have become more urgent and constitute a fairly constant refrain in my mind: Why is my institution, and many across the board, unable to retain faculty of color? Why are we unable to fund diversity efforts and support our contingent faculty? Why are non-tenure track faculty, staff and graduate students’ voices and opinions shunted to the side, as if only tenured professors and students make up a campus? If we know that something (like hiring practices or tenure and promotion, for examples) can reinscribe hierarchies and oppressive systems, why do we continue to prioritize meeting those expectations? Why do we (as an institutional body) still think talking in circles around issues is moving us forward?
The longer I am here and the more I do, the angrier I get and the more I want to do— and then don’t. Being in academia is a never-ending process of seeing an issue… and then going to seventeen meetings about it, and at the end of which, everything remains the same. It’s made me jaded, it makes me resentful and it will likely make me pursue a career outside of the academy.
I think often about Toni Morrison’s statement about the function of racism is to distract you. At Portland State University in 1975, she said, “The function, the very serious function of racism, is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being.” Well the fact is, racism is keeping me from doing my work, making me tired and all I want to do is rest. In short, it’s doing its job, it’s doing it well, and I am, unfortunately, failing to continue to muster the energy to do anything about it.
I’m torn between wanting to keep working and doing and hoping that maybe I can do something, anything, to change the culture of the institution, but at the end of every meeting, I am exhausted. Not just exhausted, I am often near tears. My therapist, bless her, is likely at her wits end with me signing onto our sessions already crying. Many Black folks and people of color in the academy build up a tolerance for institutional bullshit, but I am still green. Every time someone raises their voice, I bristle; when I am talked over, I feel defeated; when (white) folks express shock that I could have a useful idea, I scowl; when they compliment me on my well formulated responses, I hear “articulate” and cringe because, of course, I couldn’t be. And I am TIRED.
And I just started.
This is taxing labor, labor that I pay for with my time and energy and tears.
It keeps me from what I find to be energizing work: teaching, workshopping, and collaborating.
I recently had the opportunity to speak with Stanford’s Black Studies Collective. This hour long conversation with the students was electric: we built off of each other’s energy, traded tips, offered advice, and enjoyed this moment of congregation together, filled with smiles and laughter. This work can be joyous. It can look like discussing the myriad of ways to translate your research into publicly consumable knowledge, it can look like helping folks think through the ways they organize themselves to get the most out of their day, it can look like explaining how I learned to fly.
I find that this work is most joyous in community.
This is why having collaborative aspects of my first course is important to me. For their introductory/get to know you assignment, I had my students contribute at least one song to a collective and thematic class playlist. I wanted to get a sense how they are thinking about the intersections of Black girlhood, fantasy and digital culture, what sorts of considerations and questions they will bring to the table and offer an opportunity to begin working together towards a shareable product. Building together helps me feel like I am contributing something. I am no longer just interested in making the space, but I want to play in the space I’ve created to see how we can construct the impossible.
That feels like energizing work, soul fulfilling work.
And the Academy makes it as hard as possible to revel in the joy of communal building with my students, peers and other faculty and staff.
I want better for us, and I will be completely honest, I don’t know if I’m the person to be a part of the move towards tearing down what no longer serves us and in its place, crafting a better university. Just from my special combination of mental health issues, if I can avoid stressors as a way of keeping mood episodes under control, I will. I sacrifice my health to fight as hard as I do. And I want so much better for us, but I only get one life, one body, one me.
And while I want better for us, I also want better for me.
I don’t have an answer. I may never.
What I do know is that I got to look at a screen with a lot of Black faces on Friday, all eager and ready to learn from me and each other. It was joyous. And it keeps me going.
They keep me going.
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.