Week 6, or Harlem Blues

I’ve woken up essentially every day this week, praying that the bad mood has passed. The current soundtrack to my life would probably be some weary blues music. I find that deeply disturbing primarily because I’m (almost) 23 and life shouldn’t be that hard yet.

I’m trying to force myself to have positive thoughts, in spite of my car dying and still having to write a conference paper for Saturday. (!!!) Even though I’m not the most productive I’ve ever been, I’m focusing a little more energy on taking care of myself. I’m making time for pleasure reading (which sounds impossible considering the amount of academic reading I have to do each week), I’m meditating a little more, trying different teas and taking myself out to coffee shops I like. I spend more money than I’d like to admit on specialty coffee drinks, but it makes me happy. I recently discovered an Alice In Wonderland-esque cafe near the College, Culture Cafe. It serves some of the best lattes I’ve ever had in mismatched ceramic mugs and there’s plenty to look at while I sip: old, first edition, leather bound volumes with yellowing pages line the book shelves which cover the walls from floor to ceiling in the upstairs work area; paint spattered tarps double as curtains; a chandelier of mismatched Edison bulbs hangs just above my favorite spot, an old paisley couch with a coffeetable in need of a new paint job before it. I’m pretty sure the inside of my mind looks something like this cafe.

While I was there, waiting the arrival of a friend, my mind wandered, as it had done so many times this semester, to the authors of the Harlem Renaissance. The more I learned about them, the more they came alive, filling my mind as so many of my novel characters do. I wondered what they talked about over coffee, and what the rapport was between all of them. Reading David Levering Lewis’s When Harlem Was In Vogue makes me laugh at the way he describes the boys of the moment and I’m enthralled by the drama of it all. I texted my friend saying I would love to write an HBO series called Harlem which would follow all of these interconnected lives. 

Every time I’m introduced to a new character, I usually equate them to an artist I already know. I could barely contain myself when I realized Jean Toomer sounded a lot like my friend, Ed: brilliant to the point of genius with words but scatterbrained and so ill-focused he produced only one work. Whenever my professor narrates Jean Toomer’s life, I can’t help but imagine Ed, long and lanky, floating from project to project, attracted to whatever piqued his interest. I see my friend Araba in my mind’s eye when we speak of Zora– hard, unyielding, talented, with a tongue and mind that’s sharp as a whip. Then, of course, Langston Hughes always reminds me of Micah, the modest documentor of the harshest of Black realities. Her work is so sonic, infused with hip-hop, only a step away from Hughes’ jazz flavored everything.

Sometimes I wonder who I’m like of the group. I relate to both Countee Cullen and Jessie Fawcett, Countee for his love of the classic but mixed with Black flair that he admits he knows less of than he does French, Jessie for her valiant artistic effort but true talent as the teacher, the editor, the stage manager of the Renaissance. Then, sometimes, every now and then,  I come back to Nella Larsen, the mixed raced, foreigner to America in every way. A Danish mother and a West Indian father gave birth to an American Black Nella who didn’t fit, couldn’t fit by the American standard. Europe didn’t have her answer, Black America didn’t have her answer, and the homelessness haunts everything she writes. What I admire most about Nella, though, is the almost feline sharpness with which she writes. Her style is so distinct that I’d be hard pressed to pick up a piece of her work and not know its hers. She’s attentive to fashion and textiles and colors that correspond to moods, which shift almost from page to page. There’s this lack of self-restraint that I love about her novels, the unapologetically sensual female leads that run her stories.

There’s a detail that really makes me hesitate and linger over Nella: after her husband divorces her, she disappears from the Harlem scene for ten years with barely a trace. 

Things are not always what they seem…the leading message of both Nella’s work and her life, something that deeply resonates with me at the core of my being.

I like Sunday morning Harlem musings. The more I read about Black art and Black artists in the 20th century, the more I realize that’s where I want to reside when I teach. I love my comics, I love my literature, and this is just an extension–or a specialization, depending on how you think about it. I’m discovering my time periods and my contexts. No matter how much I love Ida B. Wells, she just doesn’t capture my entire imagination like the artists do. When I’m thinking of late 19th and early 20th century, my mind immediately goes to a paper. My interest in Ida B. Wells quickly turned into a paper topic: the self-representations of Ida B. Wells as a New Woman, in light of Booker T. Washington’s uplift and respectability politics. But when I’m thinking of Harlem, my mind spins with art projects. How would I do a web series version of my Harlem HBO series? Could I do a graphic biography of Nella Larsen’s life? How can I paint this? How can I imagine this? How can I create work that adequately places itself in conversation with the intellectual discourse of the time? In a lot of ways, it seems a shame to write an academic paper on the Harlem Renaissance, when I know these artists would have been more receptive to my art. They would have been curious to see how their discourse would have shaped my thought.

Making art is not the absence of critical thought. It is the most critical expression of thought that we have.

It’s why I’ll gladly keep my Sunday morning Harlem musings, with a cup of tea in one hand and a paintbrush in the other.

Week 5, or The Busiest Bee

I have been getting increasingly bad about updating this blog.

I’m sad about it because I was really looking forward to reading back through every week of my entire first year in grad school at the end of the semester. I could review my successes, my struggles; assess my game plans and strategize for the next year.

But things have been rough recently. As I mentioned in my last post, I’ve been feeling out of whack, which truthfully, is not entirely due to burn out, but also due to some mental health issues I’ve been battling recently. The resulting panic from this discovery led to me cutting off my relaxed hair, and embracing my very short, entirely natural new ‘do. (If you’re interested in reading further about my cut, I wrote about it over at Literally, Darling.) My parents hate it but I’m almost 23 years old, and there’s really no reason to lose any sleep over my parents not liking my new haircut.

Despite all that craziness, I’ve finally managed to get my feet back under my in my New Woman course. I stopped thinking about my weekly precis as busy work, but instead using it as an opportunity to articulate some comments I have about the Tuesday readings (which I miss because I’m taking African-American Texts, which meets at the same time.) Thinking about it this was has helped alleviate the stress significantly, but as one door closes another opens…

I’m also coming up on deadlines for an annotated bibliography for that class. As you might remember from my posts last semester, I am a huge fan of annotated bibliographies and have a great deal of respect for professors who are kind enough to assign them. They’re your best friend in grad school. The fact is, annotated bibliographies ensure your stress levels are set to moderate instead of severe during finals because you’ve already done all the heavy lifting of research and pulling together an outline months in advance. All you have to do then is write.

Unfortunately, annotated bibliographies are still a ton of work. You have to do the research at some point, and apparently that point is now. Granted, I will be so happy all my research will be done when I’m struggling to write in April, but I’m mildly freaking out right now, mostly because I also have to figure out how to write a conference paper…

Also, at some point last semester, I might have written about my Black Panther paper getting accepted to the Southeastern American Studies Association Conference. I’ll be presenting on a panel with a few other people and I was so excited about it when it was theoretical. Now, I’m nervous about presenting my, possibly very shitty, little comic paper in front of serious scholars with Ph.D.s, one of whom will most definitely be one of my favorite African-American studies professors from UVA. She’s been such an advocate for me since I got into grad school. She’s suggested books for me for this paper. She’s talked me up and also been super supportive of me throughout this journey, just in general. I really don’t want to get up on stage an embarrass myself in front of her.

Add these worries to my usual pressing homework deadlines, Omohundro stress, the art exhibit I’ve been planning with Ari, trying to keep a steady flow of articles to Literally, Darling, and my parents, who have been more present than usual over the last few weeks, I’ve basically been a puddle of anxiety. Which, let’s be honest, is not that unusual for me.

Still, things haven’t been all bad. My friends haven’t let me hole up in my apartment behind stacks of books. They’ve rallied around me and supported me, from visits from my high school best friend to late evening phone calls, from being my personal hair guru to being my coffeeshop partner. They’ve made me get outside and get moving, playing frisbee with neighbors; they’ve gotten me early birthday presents; and they’ve even taken me out for a morning adventure to see “I Am Not Your Negro” in Richmond.  (Side note to review the film: I really enjoyed it. It was informative but it wasn’t necessarily new information. Artistically it wasn’t stunning or particularly moving and the most innovative part was looking at these stories from a new perspective.)

And I some things to look forward to. Mindfulness Training has been really useful for me. It’s my pause during my hectic week and the strategies we learn help me navigate the waves of uncertainty during the week. Not to mention, my birthday is coming up next Monday. It’s the first year that I can remember that I haven’t actively counted down to my birthday, but I’m still fairly excited. I don’t have any special plans but maybe something will pop up during the week. One of my friends also has a birthday this week, so maybe a joint gathering will be in the works.

I won’t say I promise to go back to writing every week because I don’t like to make promises I can’t keep, but I will do my best to keep setting aside a little time for myself every day, and hopefully, blogging will continue to be one of the things I like to do for myself.

 

 

Week 3, or Burn Out and (Intellectual) Soul Food

It was bound to happen: the burnout. I went straight from undergrad to a masters/Ph.D. Program with nothing but a (relatively) short summer in between, and was only just beginning to recover from four years of near tortuously rigorous education at UVa when I rolled up to William and Mary.

Considering how challenging mentally and emotionally UVa had been for me specifically, I really ought to have given myself more than a three month respite from academic heavy lifting. Unfortunately or fortunately, depending on how you look at it, I have an unquenchable burning desire to know, to learn, and to be in an environment of constant stimulation. Academia is the perfect place for a person like me, except for one thing: academia tends to push you too hard, and more often than not, you’re not really in a position to push back.

It started with discovering an entire class had been cancelled on me. My tinge of annoyance turned into frustration and then to panic as I tried to find a solution. Panic turned into a constant and heightened state of anxiety as I’ve struggled to make up missed reading for the class I’ve since substituted for my original, keep up with the weekly assignments, write my lengthy (w e e k l y) précis as I can’t attend Tuesday classes, and find my footing generally in the class. This course was an imperfect solution to a decidedly perfect and well planned semester. 

Let me be clear: Academia is my stability. I can control very little, but there is something calming and steadying about sitting down each week, copying down all my assignments and readings, organizing it into manageable chunks that stabilizes my ever changing life and my incessantly active mind.

It was nothing but a misstep. It was like missing a step walking down the stairs and your heart flies into your throat. 

I still haven’t quite recovered.

Add all this to the fact that I’ve switched from working on the William and Mary Quarterly to OI books this semester, where the chapters are long and the turn around are short; that I’ve had 800 page texts for the last two weeks; and I’m attempting to orchestrate an art exhibit for the end of the month? And of course, now is when family issues intensify and time is slipping between my fingers, like my days are two hours shorter than everyone else’s. 

In the midst of all of the insanity, I managed to fall ill (which I’m starting to think is just as much a reaction to stress as it is actual sickness), Donald Trump was sworn in as President of the United States of America and I’ve been to a protest almost every week since. 

The emotional energy it takes to simply exist these days in a political moment that is less political than it is a circus of baffoonery takes away from my ability to do even the most basic things, like properly feed myself. I get caught in a maelstrom of cynical tweets and lengthy facebook posts and articles and photos and videos, a never ending stream of panicked negativity, and when I finally get my head above water, it seems impossible that I have to work and study when the world seems to be ending.

I am absolutely not the only person feeling like this. But it’s particularly isolating these days. 

I console myself by playing the Harry Potter movies on repeat, eating a small mountain of dark chocolate chips every day and ignoring responsibility by teaching myself to hand letter via instragram videos and Pinterest. I spend more time decorating my (bullet)journal, which I use for class notes, than I do actually taking notes. I can get through about a half hour of work at a time before everything gets overwhelming and I have to watch the first three minutes of Finding Dory to cheer myself up.

And a surprising amount of my comfort has come from reading (parts) of my 800 pages monstrosities of African-American history. In two of my classes, we’re wading through texts from the Nadir, the period of after Reconstruction and into the early 20th century that has been classified as one of the worst periods of racism in U.S. History. I’ve read The Philadelphia Negro and Black Reconstruction for one class, and have been encountering more and more Ida B. Wells in my supplementary reading. My teachers often talk about the W.E.B. DuBois’ hardness of personality and I think to myself, was there any other way to be? Was there any other way to endure the hardness of life during the Nadir? Was it not the grit of surviving the Nadir that gave Ida B. Wells the steel to not run when her printing press was burned down? Not only did she stay, but she got twice as loud and twice as fierce. 

I like to think that it was their belief in the ability of humanity to improve and in their own personal ability to do what they felt was just that sustained them. I like to believe that it was a combination of faith and passion and a strong sense of morality that kept them going. Trying times reveal the worst and the best of us, and I’m just hoping that my current weakness will give way to strength. All I can do is move one day at a time, having faith each day, feeding my passion, and doing at least a little good each day, for myself and for others. I have to have faith that each small, positive thing will add up to a happy life in a larger picture. 

So I read a little Black history every day. I thank God for their strength and pray for my own. I admire the intelligence and tenacity of those who came before me, and pray that I can do my forebearers justice. I praise the good they did this world and it inspires me to do good in my own way.

Thus far, that’s been the best medicine for Burn Out– taking it day by day, and letting my work inspire me to do just a little good each day.

My attempt at joining the Academy