Week 13, or Friendship, Futures and Finish Lines

My friend and I often have conversations like this. She’s a 1L at UVa and I’m finishing my first year in a MA/PhD program at William and Mary. We’re both extremely strong willed Black women who were up against the (sometimes/occasional/often/always) hostile atmosphere of our respective PWIs. And, against all odds, we find ourselves staring the end of the semester in the face– a sign that, in spite of everything, we have done the unthinkable: we have prospered. 

Let’s be real: our year long fight has not been easy. For each victory, we congratulated each other. They were often incredible triumps: small publications, meeting the former Attorney General of the United States, getting impressive summer jobs, winning leadership roles in organizations, presenting papers at conferences, organizing art exhibits, having the courage to write the truth of the Black experience as a 1L at a PWI…the list goes on. But for every high point, man were there lows. I definitely called her more than once last semester complaining about the hostile atmosphere of my environment; I got several earfuls about the periodic idiocy happening in her Con Law class; and almost all of our conversations have started like this…

Her: How have you been?

Me: Drowning in work. Trying to stay afloat. You?

Her: GIRL, ME TOO.

I honestly don’t know if I would’ve made it as far as I had if I didn’t have a close personal Black female friend to regularly commiserate with– someone who was going through a similar ordeal, working against a comparable learning curve and who could match my sordid tales of microaggressions with depressing ones of her own.

As nice as that rapport is, this is also the friend who I can send bulletjournaling buzzfeed articles to at 7 AM; the friend who sends me instagram screenshots; and who understands that sometimes I just have to buy an obscene amount of art supplies and I, of course, never judge her for her mug habit. 

I think our friendship is so important because it’s proof that Black female relationships do not have to be competitive. I honestly usually want to smack people who tell me Black female friendships are trouble and that successful Black women are competitive, because it implies, that for some reason, Black female friendships are flawed– that the women who make them up are flawed. 

If we are, it’s for normal human reasons. Our friendship isn’t perfect, but the few pitfalls have nothing to do with us being jealous, hostile, competitive Black women. Our Black womanhood does not make our friendship flawed.

Our friendship reminds me that nobody but another Black woman is going to understand the facade of perfection and “together-ness” I enact on daily basis, who is going to understand the depth of my struggles, and with whom I would feel comfortable sharing those issues.

It’s because of this that I try my best to be there for the Black women that come to rely on me, especially those who are coming after me. It’s the desire to be there for a young Black girl in the same way Black women have come through for me that forced me out of my comfy bed on Friday and found me at a meeting in which my Black female undergraduate friend tried to organize a Black run literary publication, even though she is a graduating senior and has literally two weeks left to care.

She is a Black woman I admire. She does things not for accolades, but because she sees a societal need— and as there is often no one else in site– does her best to be the change she wants to see. 

I’m so happy I went, not only because I want to help the students get this started if I can, but because I could tell it meant something to her that I came to support her. By showing my face, I became another life line for many of the other Black undergraduate girls, one they may not ever use, but one, nonetheless. One is more than none. That’s truly all I can do. I can be present where I am, be more help than was available before. 

Plus, I love a good opportunity to hear what’s important to the undergraduates. Getting a pulse of their lifeblood helps me see where I can help. Just by going, I was able to talk with a young Black female student, just starting to think about her place as a Black student at a PWI; I was able to support a friend; and though I couldn’t do anything immediately, I became an active listener to someone who was been working through a crisis concerning LGBTQ+ students and Greek life here. I had such deep admiration for this student who was braver than I could ever be– choosing to run headfirst into a hostile environment, knowing they may not be able to change it, but they could make a start.

These students give me hope. They give me a purpose. They help me think, not in terms of survival, but betterment and empowerment. It’s not all about finish lines, but rather check points in a marathon. 

As I face the next two weeks, I’m trying to adjust my mentality.

I’m trying not to see April 30th as a finish line, but a check point. I got through another leg, and then I’ll rest. But the race isn’t over. I’ll rest; then I’ll have to find the strength to run some more.

Week 12, and Ravynn does BAW

For the first time in quite awhile, it feels like I’m heading toward something that feels like solid ground. 

For those of you invested in my personal life, my mom was finally released from the hospital on Wednesday. (Praise, Jesus!) She’s still slow, still on the mend, but the most recent positive update is that she took a little walk outside (!) when I was at the house yesterday. I ended up packing up all my stuff and heading back to Williamsburg after one of the craziest few weeks of my life. 

Despite my mom getting out on Wednesday, I wasn’t done driving. This past weekend was the University of Virginia’s Black Alumni Weekend, which is essentially a Black family reunion that lasts three days. As an undergrad, BAW (which happens every two years) was the best part of the spring. All your graduated friends would come back, there were ample volunteer opportunities which usually came with free food and/or a t-shirt and there would be a probate (or two…or three) each week leading up to the grand event. Black bodies would flood Grounds, fill the air with the joyful sound of best friends reuniting, and you could follow the smell of delicious soul food all the way down to the amphitheater at mid afternoon on Saturday. You could count on an older graduate or two stopping you to ask we still used the BB (which we did) and if they didn’t, you could always count on them to smile encouragingly to you as you walked to class.

It confused the hell out of the white students.

We didn’t give a damn.

On Friday, I became a part of the Black mass that biannually converged upon Grounds. It felt surreal that I wasn’t a student eagerly awaiting the wave, but an alumni. It felt surreal to have an orange reunion t-shirt instead of an orange volunteer shirt. When I was handed my name tag, I felt a strange tinge in my stomach. After I matriculated into UVa it wasn’t unusual see myself indentified as “Ravynn Stringfield, class of 2016.” But this time when I saw my name, “Ravynn Stringfield, COLL 2016” stamped in bold across my badge, fastened to a blue lanyard, I understood how much it had cost.

In 1986, my dad left the University, his degree unfinished, not to return until I enrolled in 2012. I came to UVa with a vendetta. I saw my dad’s legacy was unfulfilled and I saw that it was my responsibility to enter the ring and finish the fight for him.

And, man, did I fight. I fought the disappointing B’s that filled my first grade report. I fought the racist Government TAs who presumed to not understand welfare. I fought a losing battle with my mental illness. I fought to stay in school and finished that semester with a 3.9. I fought for jobs and internships; competed for “prestigious” leadership opportunities and study abroad trips. I fought (and failed) to have my opinions heard and respected at meetings for organizations in which I held leadership. I was beaten down verbally and emotionally, disrespected and harassed. 

Then at some point, I found myself on the verge of graduating and I realized I had almost survived.

That’s what I thought about my UVa experience for most of the 10 months that it’s been since I’ve graduated– that I survived it. 

But as I rounded the corner and saw the Blue Ridge mountains spread out in front me as I sped up route 64, blasting my favorite 90s jams, I realized that this return was my victory lap. I had lost the battles and won the war.

My name badge and BAW t-shirt were the spoils of war.

And my friends and I celebrated. We celebrated that I had graduated, that I had returned, that they were prospering and finishing strong. We celebrated being reunited and friendships and life-long relationships. We celebrated life at UVA and the life beyond. We celebrated love and theater and scholarship and beauty.

The laughs and shouts of joy, the shine of Black bodies on the land that our ancestors had cultivated and built upon, the electric buzz of legacy created the atmosphere of love and happiness that’s like the most lit R&B, hip-hop, gospel mixtape you’ve ever heard. 

I was only there for a day, because life has been a destructive whirlwind. But the whirlwind set me down outside of Peabody Hall, where I spent most every week day afternoon for four consecutive years. 

With a smile, I headed inside– not as a student; but as a victor.

Week 11, or Prioritizing and Priorities

When I was younger, I didn’t take sick days off from school. Every day I went, come hell or high water, and even if someone had to come get me part way through the day, I was dropped off at the threshold of my school each morning.

That obsession with attendance followed me as I got older. Even if I knew I wasn’t going to be productive because of a fever, a pounding headache, a disgusting sinus infection, a panic attack, you name it, I consistently pushed myself out of bed and either plopped down in front of my computer screen at work or at my desk in class, and tried. 

But in the last few years, I’ve realized how important it is to take time when I need it. There came a point when I absolutely needed to take time off but the “present by any means necessary” mantra by which I lived my life kicked in, and I tried to convince everyone around me that I was fine to go back to class the next day.

I hadn’t slept for days and I could barely see, my eyes were so swollen.

A few weeks later, I’ve rested up enough to try and integrate back into my normal life. And in my defense, I think I would’ve been fine if I didn’t have the added stress of worrying about my mom, who is still in the hospital. 

I tell myself I’m going to try to work at the beginning of every day, but the pattern’s the same. I get up, I try to clean the house (to varying degrees of success) before my dad comes home to shower and eat. I maybe stare at a few pages of reading before Dad walks in. I ask if anyone is with my mom. He says no. I get up and drive to the hospital. I talk to my mom for about twenty minutes. I help her to the restroom a few times, another twenty minutes each time, from the time she gets out of the bed until she gets back in. Food comes and I help her eat. She asks for water. I read to her a little. She falls asleep. I try to read. She wakes up and we do it all over again.

The fact is my priorities are still out of order. There is no universe in which reading for a class I won’t remember in ten years trumps caring for my mother, who gave birth to me and was an active and caring parent to me for my entire life.

What I should be balancing is caring for my mom, caring for my dad and caring for my own mental health. My school work comes much later. People are more important than things.

I wish my dad and I had more help, but one family’s tragedy is another’s minor inconvenience.

I try not to get frustrated with other people. I try not to get angry or sad. But everything feels like it’s happening too slowly. The nurses don’t move fast enough when my mom calls for help, the doctors aren’t figuring out what’s wrong fast enough, even I’m not moving fast enough to help. It feels so urgent that I find myself wanting to scream at everyone around me, “MY MOM IS SICK WHY AREN’T YOU HELPING HER?!” I feel like screaming at the doctors, her family, me. The only person that’s doing it right is my dad. He’s the only person that ever does anything right.

I feel guilty taking time to even write this, to steal hours to read and write when I know I should be sitting by her, reading to her, cheering her up, buying flowers and hanging pretty words around her room to make her smile. I want (read: need) to talk to friends who forget to call back or miss texts, and in between, they missed everything and I need to tell them what’s going on. I wouldn’t even know what to say, if I should talk about how I feel or if I should talk about my mom. And instead of working through the feelings, I let them overwhelm me and I shut down.

I don’t have time for anything but us right now, me, my mom, my dad. No one else had been there for us we needed help. No one else but us. I don’t have time to write précis, or read that 500 page monstrosity, or text back about anything that doesn’t include my mom.

My mom is my priority. I am my priority. My dad is my priority.

If that makes me a bad grad student, so be it, but it certainly makes me a good daughter and a good human.

Now, excuse me. I’ve got to go see my mom.

My attempt at joining the Academy