Week 4, or (Black) Pain

I think it’s universally known that graduate school is hard.

What may not be universally known is that it is often painful.

Being a graduate student requires vulnerability. One must not only have strong beliefs and opinions, but it must be expressed. We are expected to lay ourselves bare in the classroom and in our writings, our truths uncovered before our peers and “superiors” who more or less become judge, jury and executioner. If you are lucky, you might find yourself in a supportive space, where you are encouraged to think out loud and grow– where you feel safe to make mistakes and learn. Unfortunately, more often than not, you will find yourself subject to critique that is less about you, than it is about someone needing to prove their own intelligence, needing to find the flaw, needing fill the space with their own voice.

The discomfort of vulnerability, mistakes and learning is where growth happens. While I think we all need a certain amount of discomfort in order to grow, it becomes quite easy for that feeling to become toxic and damaging to one’s self-worth.

And that’s just one level.

Now, imagine that toxic environment– imagine the hostility, the tension, the anxiety cluttering the air like smog– and imagine that you are Black.

Every time you have to point out racism, a pain cuts through you, like a dull knife. It won’t kill you, but it still stings.

When my blood boiled at hearing a white woman say that a freed slave was “afforded the opportunity to be great” by white people, I felt the muscles in my neck tighten and I tried to make my voice steady when repeated the words back to her, so she knew how absurd it was that she believed that the white people who had kidnapped, brutalized, enslaved and abused a man could also be responsible for his “greatness.” I felt my intestines knot themselves up when I had to tell a white man that Frederick Douglass never needed to be “vindicated” by white anthropologists– Frederick Douglass has never been a marginalized figure. Why is that Douglass’ observations weren’t valid to you until white scholars said it was so? I felt a pain like I had been stabbed in the stomach while I sat in bed, observing the minutes that passed– one minute past when I should have gone to my doctor’s appointment, two minutes, three minutes, four. I didn’t want to explain to her, yet again, how much pain I was in, only to have to feel like I was defending myself, trying to prove and justify my pain, when what I really need is simply to be helped.

By Thursday I was choking on that toxic air, nursing open wounds, and a hand over my chest, which throbbed with dull pain. On Thursday we talked, at least in part, about Black women, and despite knowing that only Black women are truly here for other Black women, I failed a friend. I watched her burn our class to the ground with the intensity of truth, and when she asked, “Do you think that white women have appropriated the term intersectionality?” I could do nothing but look at her in awe. The kumbaya answer added burns to my body, which matched the bruises I got from watching a film in which the Black feminists were marked as vigilantes and malcontents until the final minutes, when white feminists swooped in with their golden badges of support and allyship, and suddenly the media thought they might be heroes.

Even with in my own race, I have to keep my guard up. I often feel as though I have to fight to prove my value not only as a scholar but as a person with my classmates and my professors. The Black men in my life only rolled through to remind me that though we both might be Black, he was a man, and thus entitled to stake a claim on those who are absolutely not his– as though we are property to be claimed and protected as opposed to people to be respected.

This was the week that I learned how to articulate a brutal sensation that, until now, had been unnamed and had settled to a spot just under my ribcage: Black pain will always be less important than white pain in American society. When Black women and white women are both expressing pain, the white woman will be attended to first.

I have been talked over, down to, around and about. I have been ignored and forgotten.

My poor body, suffering from asphyxiation, blunt force trauma to the head and chest, with multiple stab wounds, took a fatal hit when I realized that even the best of intentions can kill.

It seems like nothing grows in America without Black blood.

Each day that I come to class, remember how I look. You will not be able to see the damage, so I have held up a mirror for you. When you wonder why I sharply correct your diet racism, despite it being the only offensive thing you’ve said today– remember that I’ve got a body covered in bruises. They never get to heal before I’m forced to return to my seat in class, before I’m forced to gag on toxic air again, be stabbed and hit, with hardly anything to shield me.

Remember that I walk through this world in pain.

So when I finally scream back, don’t you dare wonder why.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Week 3, or Pretention and (Hyper)Tension

It has never occurred to me to be pretentious. It’s really hard to be pretentious when you went to high school in a cornfield and your parents are from rural Virginia. From time to time, I might be proud of myself for my accomplishments, but for every moment of security, I have nine of self-doubt: 1. Do I belong here? 2. Is my work valid? 3. Can I even write? 4. Will I pass Comps? 5. Will I finish my dissertation? 6. Will I get a job? 7. Will I get tenure? 8. Will I be respected or will I always have to fight for it? 9. I’m the first in my family to chase a PhD– will I be able to make them proud?
Pretention is the language of the Academy that I don’t speak. It’s the language of privilege and prestige that I didn’t come to by birth, but by trial and error until I stumbled into UVA, where I honed my ability to talk the talk. I’m learning to make my written words follow suit. 

This year, for some reason, I am more aware of my awkward positioning. I am more aware that I don’t speak like everyone else, that I stumble over words, use very simple language and say “like” more times in one sentence than I care to admit. My mind doesn’t accept theory as readable and even after sitting with it I still don’t always understand. I am not a native of this world, and I am so much more aware of it now.

Even if I could force myself to learn the talk, walk the walk and dance when my strings are pulled, I do not want to. My grandmother, once upon a time, asked when I was going to publish a book so she could read it. My aunt asked why I hadn’t gotten her a copy of one of the Quarterly issues I had worked on. I didn’t have the heart to admit that my first book probably wouldn’t be one my grandma could read and enjoy nor that no one in my family would want to read the Quarterly: they would only look at my name in the front cover.  This has absolutely nothing to do with intelligence. I come from a line of intelligent and industrious people. It comes down to way in which I am expected to write. This isn’t to say that I can’t write in the language of the Academy, but I regret that the only language it recognizes is that of Pretention. 

It makes me feel shut out, but I will not let it make me feel invalid. 

With my Masters complete and my defense only a few days away, I’m starting to feel the thrill of being a full PhD student and the pressure to decide what type of scholar I am going to be– how I will market myself. All I know is that I’m going to be no kind of scholar if I keep spending this much time comparing myself to others and thinking about obstacles I dont need to worry about yet. I honestly should do my best to stop stressing about this because hypertension definitely runs in my family.

At the same time, the idea behind this blog was to keep it real, about grad school, about writing, about being a Black woman in this space…and it would be foolish to gloss it over because it’s uncomfortable. Growth is uncomfortable– yet we need to grow. This growth is its own thing… a subject for another week, I suppose. 😊

Week 2, or Quitting

Every so often, I have to convince myself to keep writing. Most of the time, I plod along with my writing, knowing that (a) my writing is terrible and/or (b) no one is reading my work. Occasionally, I have to spend an enormous amount of time convincing myself that my writing is not terrible, and even if no one is reading, at the very least, I can say I’m writing.

Rationally, I know I’m probably doing just fine, but the part of my brain run by my uncontrollable anxiety tells me that I need to just quit while I’m ahead. It tells me that my Masters thesis will be terrible, and that if I can’t get through a Masters, how am I supposed to write a dissertation. It tells me that I’m not good enough to be published, even though I’ve built up a solid digital portfolio over the last few years on a few different websites. It tells me that I need to stop blogging because it’s useless, a time suck and it’s crap anyway.  I become convinced that I don’t deserve to work with undergraduate writers on their publication because I don’t know anything about editing, even though I spent a year of my life as an editorial apprentice. I just know I will never write anything worth while and continuing to try is simply me fooling myself.

I want to quit so often that it’s a miracle I’m even still doing this.

Today, I wanted so badly to throw all of it away. I wanted to delete all of the drafts, destroy my manuscripts, dump every single one of the many journals I’d carefully filled with my thoughts over the course of years. I wanted to quit blogging, resign as grad assistant from the undergraduate black run publication I’m advising, and give up on my dreams of helping jump start a journal for the Lemon Project, of being a contributing writer for The Atlantic, of becoming Editor-In-Chief of my own publication some day. I became so convinced that I had nothing to say, nothing of substance to add to the world that I even contemplated simply never speaking in class ever again.

The irony of it all is that I wanted to write how I felt.

I wanted to write a blog post about my fears of never publishing a novel, a journal article or an op-ed.

Every time I write anything, I open myself up to critique. In addition to the constant stream of negativity I deal with in my own head, other people get to spew their vitriol at me and my thoughts, if they want. (This hasn’t happened yet, but eventually, I will probably write something that will piss off a solid amount of people.) If I can’t even convince myself to keep writing as a nobody grad student with a blog that only reaches a couple dozen people weekly, what do I expect to do if some day I do write something important and everyone around me is telling me to quit writing?

The wonderful thing about this blog is my ability to put a positive spin on everything: I add a touch of hope, a line about resiliency, or at the very least trying again tomorrow. Unfortunately, this week I’m coming to this with an unprecedented amount of cynicism. I’m not sure how long I’m going to be in this funk, but I suppose as long as I’m still writing, even if it’s about how bad my writing is, it’s better than no writing at all.

 

 

 

My attempt at joining the Academy