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Fade to Black: Double Consciousness/Double Grace

Aristotle and I have a…difficult relationship.

On my second day of class, after being assigned to read Aristotle’s Poetics, I was asked my opinion on the work. My response: F**k this white man. If you know me, I know what you’re thinking, “Did Micah just cuss!? Micah neverrrr cusses!” I was just as shook as you are and actually cried later because I felt like I didn’t rep Christ well in that moment. In reading that text, I felt like so much of the work that I love was erased, dismissed, and undervalued. Poetics is regarded as one of, if not the most, important texts for dramatic writers. Something scared me and angered me that this was the only measure by which my work might be judged. But if the tongue is a reflection of the heart, then that moment scared me even more.

So let’s call this my heart check.

Truth is, I don’t actually hate Aristotle. I hate the idea that writers are expected to worship this white man who presents only a limited perspective on storytelling. But if I’m being honest, he has a lot of valuable things to say. I also don’t hate rules—I just hate the systems of supremacy that create them. I mean, who am I kidding? Is there a film that follows three act structure more closely than Love & Basketball? Is A Raisin in the Sun not a Well-Made-Play? Does every episode of A Different World not have two turns and a comic block?

I think that I’m neither the artist that Aristotle nor Amiri Baraka would have hoped for. Horizontally, I’m somewhere in the middle, and vertically, I’m climbing deeper into my soul with every piece of art I make.

My verbalized disdain for Aristotelian ideas is rooted more in a desire to be seen, to be understood. If you can’t see my melanin infused middle ground, then surely you can see the polar opposite of something you’re already familiar with. Like in my middle school days, there are moments when I coon myself into visibility. And it’s a really bad classroom survival tactic. It crushes my intelligence and light under the foot of the white gaze.

It’s a tactic born of insecurity and also very real frustration. Let me be clear, I may have moments of being combative, but I am always substantive (at least I try to be). In his seminal work, The Souls of Black Folk, W.E.B. DuBois coined the term “Double Consciousness.”

“It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness, an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder. The history of the American Negro is the history of this strife- this longing to attain self-conscious manhood, to merge his double self into a better and truer self. In this merging he wishes neither of the older selves to be lost. He does not wish to Africanize America, for America has too much to teach the world and Africa. He wouldn’t bleach his Negro blood in a flood of white Americanism, for he knows that Negro blood has a message for the world. He simply wishes to make it possible for a man to be both a Negro and an American without being cursed and spit upon by his fellows, without having the doors of opportunity closed roughly in his face.”

Growing up in middle America, then attending a PWI for undergrad, Double Consciousness has always been a part of my life (as it is for most Black people everywhere. Thx yte sprmcy). But this idea has never felt so poignant as it does in my first year of grad school. Let me share some scenarios:

When you say that your film is Black Film A crossed with Black Film B and hear crickets in the room, but somehow everyone has seen that obscure Czech film from the 70’s; When you spend more time discussing a white woman’s view of Black womanhood than a literal play by a literal Black woman about Black womanhood; When your professor tells you that your play is, in fact, not a play, because they’ve read none of the seven+ plays that you’re drawing inspiration from.

And here’s the catch, you are expected to know the works of white artists, established or emerging, like the back of your hand. Double Consciousness means double the work. Black artists, there are [at least] two canons that you have to know. The Black one that gives you life, speaks to your history and your soul, and the white one that gets you audiences and a degree. And let me add these massive caveats, you are no less Black if you are inspired by white artists and this is much more complicated than this binary. But for me, it’s a matter of creating within two worlds. It’s something that I’m going to have to reconcile as long as I’m in grad school, if not for the rest of my artistic life. What does that look like in the classroom? Being silent or invisible or being loud and hyper visible? Often it feels like a deadly combination.

I went for hyper-visibility again.

Recently, I had an assignment to bring in a produced scene (something that you’d be able to see in theaters or on tv), along with a script of that scene, so that we could compare the two as a class. After almost a semester of doing this exercise, I got tired of being one of the only people that’s never seen a given white-people-famous clip. I wanted to bring something that excited me, that I was familiar with, was helpful to my process, and reflects the kind of work that I want to make. So, I brought in Kahlil Joseph’s good kid m.A.A.d city film—which was originally a dual channel projection piece—and the lyrics to Kendrick Lamar’s “Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst,” from the good kid album—which Lamar calls a short film.

It’s one of my favorite films and Kahlil Joseph is certainly my favorite director. But if I’m being honest, the very real creative and academic benefits of unpacking a piece like that were accompanied by some tongue in cheek. (And if it wasn’t already clear, I wore my Toni Cade Bambara t-shirt). But I was scared. Like actually so nervous my hands were shaking and I was talking faster than I already do. I over-explained myself because I wanted it to be clear that I had receipts. Black Girls ALWAYS need receipts. Sometimes it feels like that’s the only way that anyone will listen, let alone take us seriously. Then we read and watched the clip.

And it was okay; I was okay.

People shared thoughts, asked questions, offered alternative interpretations. One kid even challenged my interpretation of Kendrick’s album. It felt like most of my fellow artists were there with me. Like even those who may not have understood at least cared and valued my right as a fellow learner to discuss the things that matter to me. I didn’t have all of the answers, but I also felt less naked and alone in the classroom than I have in a while. (Is this my Randall Pearson moment?)

So @God, thank you.

For the courage to bring in something that felt like a piece of myself and who I want to be. For the conviction that Black art does and has always mattered. For confidence in You that reminds me that I deserve to be seen. Jesus, You’re the light at the end of the tunnel.

To all my Stage-D-Cadets, thank you for engaging in a real way. Know that for your Black (and other POC…but we’re talking about Black Girls here) classmates, that’s a real gift. It was the first time that my voice felt fully present in the room. It felt like I wedged a little path for myself and my work in this program.

And for my Black Girls pursuing or thinking about pursuing an MFA, a few proverbs for your edification:

  1. Be your bold/beautiful/Black/brilliant self. As artists, we come to institutions in search of instruction, refinement, and mentorship. But what they can’t teach you is your soul, your imagination. It’s easy to feel like making something “good” means adopting their structures and losing your spark. That’s just not true. I’m of the opinion that an MFA program shouldn’t be a factory of cookie cutter artists. Be humble and eager to learn, but also be the master of your own art.
  2. Protect your spirit, your work, and your seeds. Some folks like to call this “guarding your heart.” I’ve come to find that that’s about more than not leaving yourself vulnerable to damaging relationships. That thing that makes you excited? Maybe that’s not the thing to get in a heated debate about. Maybe your idea is so dope that they can’t understand it yet. Maybe that seed of your next masterpiece needs time to grow before it’s pruned. I know I’ve walked away from many a writing class feeling physically ill and disoriented because the experience of having something so dear to me be ripped apart was lowkey traumatizing. My ideas are my babies. That’s not to say that you don’t need the criticism (trust me, girl, you do. You’re incredible, but not perfect, so you better get your money’s worth), but you need to know the proper time for it. Give yourself time to love what God dropped in your imagination. Because if you don’t, who will?
  3. Do the work. I know you’re mad that Susan in your film class has never heard of Julie Dash in her life, but looks at you sideways when you haven’t seen the 17th Rocky movie. But, to paraphrase Ravynn, we have to be the artists to get these degrees so that a Black Girl ten years from now doesn’t have to fight for professors to value her sources of inspiration. You are going to be tired, you are going to be frustrated, but these trials come to make you stronger. This is really a note to self to double down on my commitment to doing double the work, so keep me in check, y’all. Capital F freedom is too important for me not to be the best artist that I can be. I like to think that someone down the line will be happy that I did.

For any of this to work, my heart’s gotta be in the right place. I pray that God’s Kingdom come, that reconciliation would be real, but sometimes wonder how much I mean it. Is my armor more valuable than my healing? Well, sometimes I make it that way. How can I defend my voice and the tradition from which I come without sacrificing my mandate and desire to show love to literally everyone? That’s a struggle every single time I walk into the classroom or share my work. But if my journey is hard and my consciousness is double, is it also not true that Christ reconciled this conundrum on the cross? (spoiler: that one is in fact true). I don’t have all of the answers, I’m finding pieces of them everyday. As for me and Aristotle’s relationship status: it’s complicated. But, in the last weeks of my first semester of grad school, I’m finding enough hope to know that the journey of making this art is worth figuring out this whole Black Girl thing.

Week 3: Comprehensive Exams Advice

As I approach the end of coursework for my Ph.D. program, it’s now time to start worrying about what I’m calling “Phase 2”: Comprehensive Exams. I’ve written before about what these exams are and how I prepare for them, but still found myself nervous about this next phase.

So I did what anyone would do in my situation: I asked for advice. I put out a call for people’s best comprehensive exam advice on Twitter and Instagram; I even e-mailed a few old friends. What follows is the tips and tricks I’ve collected from various friends and followers:

On Preparing for the Exam (Studying, Note Taking, Etc):

Matthew Teutsch: “For one of my areas, Rhetoric and Composition, I entered my PhD program not knowing anything about classical rhetoric. After taking a class that covered Augustine to Nietzsche, I, along with most of the others in the class, were utterly confused. To help us get caught up on classic rhetoricians, we decided to form a study group. We went through the anthology, reading each text, and commenting on each one. Then, we met, like a book club, to discuss. Honestly, that helped me on that comprehensive exam more than anything else.”

Jan Huebenthal: “Take good notes, each with a concrete example, and no more than one page per book!”

Amanda Gibson: “Do something physical between books for the mind and body!”

Maggie DePond (@AcademicAuntie): “For oral exams: meet with professors in your committee early and often. A lot of my committee asked me questions that were the same ones we talked about in their office!”

Amanda Roberts (@phdproductivity): “Get a study buddy if you know someone taking exams at the same time as you! My friend and I made ourselves a syllabus of readings with due dates for discussion. Keep all your notes organized in a shared folder on Dropbox or Google Drive.”

@genuinely_jo: “Obvious but it never hurts to be reminded. Back up your work in a couple different places.”

Sarah Thomas, PhD: “Think of prepping for comps as your full-time job. Start working at 8 or 9 am, take a half hour lunch, then get back to work till 5 or 6 pm, then stop. Your brain needs a break in the evening. I watched a lot of cheerful British television. Try to get to bed by 11 at the latest, then wake up and start the process over again the next day. Getting into a routine and compartmentalizing that process was how I got through it. My dog and I got into a pattern of working, walking, eating, working, walking, etc. Routine helped me deal with the impossibility of the situation—how could I actually get through hundreds of books while still being mentally okay?”

On Taking the Exam:

Matthew Teutsch: “For the orals, I would just suggest looking over the graders’ comments and looking at places where you need to show more knowledge and understanding of a question or concept. If it is a timed exam, you won’t be able to say everything you want to say, so this would be a good time to do that. I would also ask around to see what your committee members might ask. Sometimes they will oblige, sometimes not. If they don’t, ask other colleagues who have had those members in their orals. Finally, talk with your professors and ask them questions. You can gather from these questions what they expect you to know and possibly how they expect you to answer.”

Zanovia Tucker, MA, LPC, NCC: “Don’t stress about what’s going to be on the test. You’ve been preparing for two years during coursework.”

Vineeta Singh, Ph.D.:

1. You don’t have to know everything. I was really scared of being asked a question that I wouldn’t know the answer to. Like what if they asked me about something I hadn’t read about? Or what if they asked about that one book that I read first year and never got back to? So it really helped me during prep to be reminded that the point of the exam isn’t to show that you have mastered every bit of research ever produced (that would be impossible!) but to show that you have a broad base of knowledge for your field and the capacity to do research in it.

2. It’s not just a test, it’s an opportunity to get feedback! Okay, I do hear how corny that sounds, but it’s true! How often do you (or any scholar) get to convene 3-6 scholars whose work you respect and have them engage with YOUR thoughts?! That is pretty dope! There are people out here thirsting for feedback, so don’t sleep on what an opportunity this is! If you have had success building a committee that’s truly invested in you as a scholar, they are going to take advantage of this opportunity to challenge you in GENERATIVE ways. The ‘exam’ setup can feel adversarial or confrontational, and many profs take that role very seriously, but (and I might just be spoiled because of my E[nthic] S[tudies] background) at its best, this is a CONVERSATION and a chance for you to shape your future work. So (if you have a supportive committee) don’t get defensive; this is your team.

Some Pep Talks:

Dana Cypress: “You always know more than you think you know by the time your comps date arrives. Sometimes we don’t give ourselves quite enough credit but if you’ve done the work, it’ll show.”

Holly Grunter: “Take it one day at a time! Every day you’ll be motivated differently. Be kind to yourself!”

Ramya Avadhanam, Ph.D.: “Remember that you’re more prepared than you think! So when you get nervous, believe in yourself and your skills!”

James Padilioni, Jr, Ph.D.: “Make sure you look up from the trees to glimpse the beauty of the forest: try to enjoy reading these books, and the opportunity you have, maybe for the only time in your life, to just sit down and read, expand your mind, and to tarry with some of the thinkers on your list. The aggressive schedule of reading makes it hard to appreciate the privilege afforded by it all. Oh and also, on the back end after everything sifts and settles, you’re going to be (even more) knowledgeable AF and have the receipts to prove it if need be!”


There you have it, folks, some of the best comprehensive exam advice from people who have either been through it or are in the midst of the storm as we speak. I want to take this moment to thank those who offered their advice, and to say that whether comps are impending, or a ways off, I hope this was as helpful to you as it was to me.