The one year anniversary of a few important days has snuck up on me. On October 23, 2019, I had the opportunity to see author Nic Stone in conversation with fellow children’s author, Lamar Giles, in Richmond. On October 25, 2019, my first published piece dropped on Black Youth Project. And on October 28, 2019, I entered #DVPit with the novel I drafted over the summer, Love in 280 Characters or Less.
One year ago, I had no idea that meeting Nic and getting to talk to her would be exactly the confidence boost I would need to pitch 280 in #DVPit just a few days later. I had no idea that my piece for Black Youth Project would just be the first of many (ten!) pieces to come in the next twelve months. I couldn’t have imagined that in just a few month’s time, I would give a keynote at a young writers conference and sign with my agent, and now be on submission trying to sell a book or two.
It’s wild to me that in a year, I really started to establish myself as a writer. This is ultimately what I always wanted to do. When I think back to the thirteen-year-old carting around a spiral notebook, turning her life into a novel, and the sixteen-year-old religiously participating in NaNoWriMo, and the twenty-year-old trying to make her creative writing class work…all these various versions of myself would have always wanted to end up here. And the version of me who sat in that study room on the second floor of Clemmons at UVA surrounded by members of Black Monologues, spitting poetry and performing off the cuff monologues, feeling inspired and safe for the first time— she was the beginning of this transformation.
It wasn’t a linear journey to this point. At all. Though I started to feel more confident in myself after BM, I definitely haltingly dipped toes into the water of publishing. I finished a novel that I eventually queried— to one agent. Who rejected it. And that was the end of that pursuit. Instead, I shelved that project and focused instead on writing smaller pieces for small magazines and this blog. I even did a short stint as a writer for Literally, Darling, and produced some good writing my first time working with editors.
As I got more comfortable with academic writing over the course of my time in coursework, I realized that that style wasn’t all I wanted. I still wanted to be able to share my thoughts and musings in more public forums. Those first couple years of grad school were tough. I really lost myself trying to prove I could do things the way the rigid system wanted me to without understanding that I was not built to operate in that way. My mind wanted a freedom incompatible with the “intellectual freedom” the Academy performatively offers. And most importantly, I wasn’t happy.
But 2018 was a year that gave some answers. I found my place in Black Digital Humanities and let myself be inspired and guided by the Black women scholars who existed as a constellation of possibilities: public work, digital humanities, history, Black feminist thought, art. I realized it didn’t have to be either or. I could do what I wanted to do and the Academy would just have to deal with it, or I would make another space.
That confidence helped me ease back into writing publicly. After my comprehensive exams, I wanted to read absolutely nothing for months. So I wrote instead. And from about June 2019-June 2020, I wrote three fiction manuscripts: two novels and a graphic novel script. I couldn’t stop because this was what felt right.
So I chased that feeling.
Which was how I found myself pitching shorter stories about love and Black feminism and digital things. I started following the sound of the stories that were on my heart and let them lead.
After a year of following stories, I think I can safely say that my lane is an interesting sort of mix of cultural criticism and memoir. While I love everything I’ve produced over the past year, I’m proudest of the two personal essays I wrote for Catapult, “How a Black Girl Learned to Fly” and “How Legend of Korra Gave a Big Black Girl Permission to Be Broken.” I can’t totally explain why…but these pieces feel like the closest I’ll ever get to flying my own self (to paraphrase Toni Morrison).
I think I needed to do this reflection because recently I’ve been feeling so stressed and tired and ready to quit writing. Being on submission is truly not for the faint of heart.
And though so much is still hanging in the balance, and with so much still to come, I don’t think I’ve fully taken a moment to appreciate how far I’ve come already.
Even though I’m not where I want to be yet, I think back to who I was at twenty-one and know that girl would look at me with awe in her eyes, full of hope and pride.
Who am I to deny myself a genuine moment of gratitude for the road I am traveling, truly walking by faith and not by sight?
My usually carefully planned out, weekly grad school blog has fallen woefully to the wayside since March. All things considered, it’s to be expected. Aside from the pandemic and uprisings and the impending election, it’s already difficult to write a dissertation and to sustain other writing projects while doing so.
So Black Girl Does Grad School has taken a backseat this year.
Nevertheless, I’m still here—albeit sporadically.
I’m currently in the editing phase of dissertation writing. I got the bare bones of what I’m trying to do and say down on the page, and now it’s about tweaking and adding and reading more and fleshing out the ideas that I already have.
Sounds simple. Unfortunately, at least for me, it’s not.
Editing is actually the hardest part of writing for me. I think it’s the most valuable part. Much of the diamonds of your thoughts are excavated during editing. The push and pull of working and reworking your writing feels a lot like kneading dough. It’s hard, intense work that requires you to get your hands dirty, and do what looks more or less like destroying your hard work. But if you don’t knead— and importantly, if you don’t let your work sit, or prove, to extend the metaphor— you won’t have much worth showing at the end. It’ll be an underdeveloped bit of mess.
As much as I respect this part of the process, I find it really difficult to do on my own, and with my own writing. Even with feedback from my chair, I still feel rather alone in this journey. The loneliness also stems from writing this particular project about Black girls and fantasy and the digital without having a Black woman on my committee.
Yes, I am aware of how this looks. The truth of it is, when I entered grad school, I knew nothing of the politics of crafting a committee. This was information I learned on the fly. And at that time, a committee didn’t matter much to me, because four or five years ago, when I was applying and starting out, I didn’t know this was the project I wanted. Perhaps a little foresight might have directed me to a different program, with a different set of support systems in place, specifically the hand of Black women scholars.
But I just wasn’t thinking like that yet.
Now I am thinking about these things as I write this creative and genre defying manuscript, knowing in my heart of hearts, that in all likelihood my committee’s not going to get it.
And having to defend my project, and by extension, myself in the process, was enough to paralyze me going forward into edits. I needed to talk to people who would understand, with little to no explanation the why of what I was trying to do as well as the what and how.
So I called a meeting of the Council of Superfriends.
My Council of Superfriends is a collection of Black women I love and who love me from different parts of my life, who all think about Black girls and girlhood in various ways: there’s Dr. Autumn, Black girl literacy scholar and one of my dearest internet friends; Chardé, an anthropology Ph.D. student at my university; Taylor, a theatre artist I met doing Black Monologues at the University of Virginia; and, of course, my filmmaking soul sister, Micah.
I asked them for an hour of their time, to just listen to me try to articulate my project as it exists so far, and offer feedback, suggestions and questions. And as soon as we started, I knew calling this particular group of thinkers together was just what my project needed. More than I needed to be pushed and prodded in my thinking, I needed community. I needed Black women who could show me where the bounds of my own mind were with love and care. They were able to ask the hard questions, and the ones that matter most: if this is a project about the freest manifestation(s) of Black girls’ selfhood, why are you limiting yourself to what you think a dissertation has to look like? Would you even be writing a dissertation to answer this question? Can a dissertation, the way you imagine it, answer this question to your satisfaction? Why did you choose this form? If you’re not planning to stay in academia, why does it matter so much to do this in such a constricting way?
For a project about the potential of limitlessness, I realized I was trapped on every side by everyone else’s expectations. The reason I was feeling so paralyzed by the project was because I couldn’t even imagine what true intellectual freedom would mean and look like for myself under the system that currently exists. And that was the trap. I was trying to fly in a cage. Just because I made the cage bigger so I couldn’t always see the bars, didn’t mean they weren’t still there.
Over the years, I have gotten so good at doing what I want to do inside the lines, inside the cage, that I haven’t truly dared let myself imagine what exploding the lines completely would look like for me. Sure, it’s impressive to be able to do this sort of alchemy within, but that’s not the truest form of my self-expression.
I can’t lie to myself and also do this project.
What a waste. Of time, of energy.
If I’m doing this for who I say I’m doing this for, and if I’m truly doing what I want to do, there is no more trying to fly in the cage.
And in conversation with the Superfriends, Chardé brought up a good point: this is a Hurstonian project. I am a student of Zora Neale Hurston. I am not, nor have I ever been, the only Black woman to find the constraints of the academy and the way things have “always been done,” completely misaligned with my personal mission. I have people I can return to, whose work I can think through and build on, to craft something to ultimately matters to me.
We began the meeting sort of discussing the long standing irritation I have at having to “justify” my dissertation work. I shouldn’t have to explain why my work about Black girls matters: to question that is to question the essential importance of Black girls. And though I didn’t necessarily come to this conclusion in that hour, I did begin to realize that the first step in freeing myself to do this project justice is to stop answering that question. Stop wasting breath on people who need to be taught that Black girls’ lives matter.
It’s time to focus on the questions that do matter, and the people who are asking them.
The Superfriends reminded me who I’m doing this for, and why I’m doing it.
They reminded me that I still have a lot to learn and unlearn and relearn, and that this process is for me. Perhaps this isn’t why other people pursue Ph.D.s, but my project is a labor of love and care.
And it always will be.