Tag Archives: Mental Health

Digging in My Tool Kit: Navigating Identity in Academia

My first year as a PhD student has come to a close, and now after two months of much needed distance I can say that I somehow survived. I made it out with my skin still attached, I scraped past the beast and kept my teeth. I refer not to the “nightwalker” that is the looming deadline, or the paralyzing gorgon of self-doubt. I am not bemoaning the money that grad school has sucked out of my pockets like Charybdis did the sea. The hazard that I escaped is one that I had forgotten between my stints as a student: I had forgotten how it feels to be a problem.

Before I lose anyone on that point let me be clear. I am grown. I am not sitting at the cramped table of the intimate basement classroom tossing spit balls and forgetting to raise my hand. Oh no, this is PhD life honey! I am a problem in the same way all Black folks are in academia. I am an issue because I placed my body and its otherness into a space that fought so long and hard to maintain its monogamy. I hear people tell me, “You’re in the door girl! Now all you need to do is work!” To that I say, sure; if the proper symbol for the Black student’s entrance into academia were a door, then that would be an appropriate stance. But that expression isn’t fitting here. In entering the university, the Black student has not “gotten in the door,” the Black student has instead made her way through the first in a series of gates. These gates are meant to compartmentalize, to discourage, to limit and to control our experiences in the university.

The second of these gates to come crashing down in front of my feet was the gate of assumptions. The otherness of my body came with a great many numbers of expectations. My body belongs to a Black person, and with this package comes ideas about my personality, my speech, my history, my motivations, my interests and of course my abilities. My body also belongs to a Black woman. The otherness of my womanhood only tacks onto these expectations and with them comes a danger. In this body, in this skin I have to be careful. This gate, and its expectations, reappear over and over during the academic odyssey. It comes back y’all. It is battled using the greatest and most important tools in the Black student’s arsenal: The Black Performative.

For the sake of keeping things simple, I’ll speak on the most essential tools in the kit that is The Black Performative; these being the successful voice, the successful body, and mindful usage. Girl, Sis, lovey and my brother too; y’all know what the successful voice is. It is the change in our tonality, in our speech pattern, in the use of our dialect. Some of us call it “the school voice,” but it follows us. We pull it from our pockets on the phone, at the checkout, even when someone strange bumps into us. It is a defense mechanism that is literally needed to succeed in academia and so to call this tool the successful voice is very easy and very appropriate. I am immensely guilty of indulging in my successful voice. As a Black woman with southern roots I speak a very different English at home, one of which I am proud to say I could break down the grammar rules of on a dime. My home speech is unique, it is the remnants of an old code spoken in Dothan, Alabama. It is complete with its own rules and unique vocabulary that, outside of the comfort of my home loses all of its meaning, but y’all kin come takes muh words from muh cold dead hands. Ain’t not nare ‘nough yenom on earth to pay me to divorce muhself from muh language.* And the act of requesting me to do so is pure barbarism! I feel strongly for my words and advocate for inclusion of multiple Englishes in higher learning, but I am still guilty of falling into my performance. Should I blame years of knowing that it was necessary, do I not want to make things harder on myself as I near the end?

Digging back into that tool box, we come to the successful body. In the year that flew by between completing my MA and beginning my PhD I had forgotten the stress that comes with my physical presentation. See that pesky gate of assumptions coming down again? You may say, “Now Justine calm down we all need to look professional.” Sure darling, that’s true, but what is acceptable and professional in my culture doesn’t always fly in an academic setting, nor is it always worth the aggravation. I’ve taken care to make sure my shape, you know the body I physically live in, doesn’t show too much. God forbid, I am too obviously a possessor of two “X” chromosomes. I’ve waited an extra week before changing my hair for the eighth time in a semester just to push back that “your hair is always different conversation” and I have bitten back venomous words when classmates with whom I have never had conversations with reach out to grab, stroke, and pull my hair while they shower me with foreign compliments. God, I had forgotten what it felt like to be a problem. I have to smile through all of this, attitude in check, resting bitch face buried beneath a smile that reminds me of Barbie’s friend, Christie. I grew up in the 90’s and back then Christie (the Black Barbie) didn’t have any African features aside from her brown skin.

That 90’s Christie doll is a perfect embodiment of the last tool I’ll speak on today. She looks trapped in another body, carefully presented, forced to smile 24/7: This is mindful usage. Mindful usage isn’t about the presentation of the Black student’s body, it is about how the Black student moves in a public space. Those pesky assumptions that we have to fight against just don’t stop popping up. If I don’t mind how I move my body I typically get one of two responses: I am perceived as hypersexual or more annoyingly I am slapped with the violent Black woman sticker. I have to divorce myself from my non-verbal grammars, the languages I can speak with my hands and my neck, the nonverbal cues that are common place in my house, in my hood, in my space; they get left behind, unless of course I want to wear that “Black women have such attitudes” badge. I have slipped before and cocked my neck, given a sarcastic fluttering of the eye. This has led to some uncomfortable moments, but nothing of consequence, right? Oh, certainly not so horrible in the classroom? Well that depends on which side of the classroom I’m sitting. Yeah, I’m a PhD student, but I’ve been teaching at the college level since before I began this adventure. Being a Black woman at the front of the college classroom is altogether a different experience. I could write a book on that one. Girl, Sis, lovey and my brother too, the academic odyssey is a lot like sailing between Scylla and Charybdis, navigate as best you can. And I urge you, try to keep as many bits and pieces of yuhself in dat boat as yuh kin.

*Nare means “not any” but is more firm!  Yenom is an old code for “money”


nullJustine Nicole Wilson is a second-year Ph.D. student at St John’s University where she majors in English and received her MA in English from Stony Brook University (Class of 2015). Justine’s research interests span trauma literature, the graphic novel, mythology, folklore and children’s media. Justine’s recent work aims to dissect trauma as “the common language of heroism,” and explores our societal consumption of trauma as a product. She is in the beginning stages of drafting her dissertation prospectus which will focus on the portrayals of mental illness and trauma in the Superhero genre.

“A nerd is someone who is as social as possible and that’s everyone.”

Week 14, or Dealing with the Urge to Quit

I have been struggling with whether or not to write this post the entire semester. I pride myself on writing blog posts that have a positive tone because I recognize how difficult graduate school is without added negativity. But the fact of the matter is, sometimes you stew in the negativity and you can’t help yourself.

That’s where I was for much of this semester. I wanted to quit. I wanted to take my Master’s degree and find a job in publishing or editing. I avoided doing my readings and spent my time job hunting, googling What kind of job can you get with a Masters in American Studies? My parents didn’t take me seriously, but I spent much of January waiting for my Master’s degree to be conferred so that I could leave with it on my transcript. I hated talking about school, I was second guessing everything that came out of my mouth in class, and I was so tired of it all that I even told my advisor that I was considering walking away. I couldn’t fix my mind to write and I wasn’t retaining anything I was reading– it all slipped through my mind like water through fingers.

I managed to pull myself out of that funk, but not before I had scared my parents, my advisors and my friends. I wish I could say that love convinced me to keep going, but nothing anyone said made any difference. It lasted so long and I became so brittle that my friends in my program felt like they were walking on eggshells around me.

What did help was a project. I can’t say much about it because I don’t want to scoop myself, but thanks to a little help from a colleague, an amazing academic project fell right into my lap. It was perfect, a little black studies, a little comic studies and a little literature, all in one. I enjoyed the pursuit of the story, getting to meet people, getting to write about something I truly cared about. I wanted the story to be good because this was something that was bigger than me. I suddenly found myself rewriting history.

What did help was a community of Black graduate students also blogging/writing/podcasting about their graduate school experiences. The creator of the podcast “Blk + In Grad School,” Allante Whitmore, wrote a post featuring about 40 resources people of color had created for other POC in graduate school. While the post was amazing, what really helped was that she then invited all the creators that she had featured to join a GroupMe together. Through this community, we have been helping each other build our respective empires by lifting as we climb. Black Girl Does Grad School was no longer an island, but one of many sites working to aid women of color in their journey through the Academy. It made me want to redouble my efforts because working with this coalition made me feel like I was no longer shouting into the void.

What did help was time. Sometimes, you just fall into a funk and the only thing you can do is wait it out. I’ve written about how I journal, get organized and meal prep to make myself feel better, but occasionally, it just isn’t enough. If you discover that what you need is time, I hope that you have friends and family who are patient enough to weather the storm with you and they will continuously remind you that this, too, shall pass. And if you don’t find that support, be your own support system. Be gentle with yourself. Be firm about what you need to feel better. And be kind to yourself and others.

In order to get through this process, you really need to know how to prioritize yourself. It is mentally taxing, overwhelming and enormously lonely. I pulled myself out of my funk by first recognizing that I was in one, then taking the necessary measures to take care of myself, but I mostly gave myself time. I was unusually patient with myself, even when others weren’t with me.

I wrote this post because I owe to myself. This isn’t the first time that I’ve wanted to quit and it won’t be the last. I owe it to myself to acknowledge my discontent and to also acknowledge what helped to gently move me back to solid ground. I owe it to myself to write about how I sustain myself during this marathon when it feels like I’m running on fumes. Everybody has these moments, but what matters is how you pick yourself back up and keep running the race.

Week 12, or How to Handle the End of the Semester Without Burning Out

If you’re reading this, more than likely you are where I am right about now: in the midst of classes ending, staring at a vast sea of papers to write and books to read. You might be wondering how am I going to juggle readings for class but also finish the semester out with strong papers and preserve my mental health?

I definitely do not have all the answers, but what I can provide is a guide to how I’ve survived the last three semesters and the push for final papers.

  1. Put your health first. Take care of yourself physically, emotionally, and mentally. Make sure you’re getting enough to eat, you’re resting enough and you’re emotionally supported. The fact of the matter is that you cannot be productive if you are not physically able to.
    1. RECOMMENDATION: If you don’t meal prep, maybe try it out during finals season, or at least cooking in bulk. Save yourself time and always have some fresh food around when you don’t feel like cooking or going out.
  2. Create a Schedule. When I’m about a month out from the end of classes, the first thing I do is create a schedule. I figure out when all my final papers are due, and then map out how much I need to write per week, at minimum, to reach my page minimums for the end of the semester.
    1. RECOMMENDATION: Write your schedule down. Put it in a notebook, in an app, on google calendars, but put it somewhere that you will see it so that you will hold yourself accountable.
  3. Start Early. We are so past the time when we could write papers the night before and get an A.
    1. RECOMMENDATION: Start early to give yourself as much time and space to work as possible.
  4. Set Goals for Yourself. In the same space where I create my schedule, I also create weekly and daily goals for myself. If, at the end of a week, I want ten pages written, I set a goal for two pages per day.
    1. RECOMMENDATION: Don’t forget to reward yourself for reaching goals, and be kind to yourself if you don’t get as much done as you’d hoped.
  5. Work on a Little at a Time. As I mentioned in Step 4, I break my weekly goals into smaller, workable pieces that I can do in one day.
    1. RECOMMENDATION: Setting my mind to working on two pages rather than trying to just tackle 25 pages is much more manageable.
  6. Get Drafts to Your Professors, if Possible. Many of my professors offer to read drafts, which is why you should (step 3) START EARLY.
    1. RECOMMENDATION: If you can get feedback on your work, you should!
  7. Peer Review. If your professors do not read drafts, read each other’s work! Just getting a fresh pair of eyes on something you’ve been working on for weeks can do wonders for your piece.
    1. RECOMMENDATION: Form writing groups with your colleagues. It’s a great way to hold each other accountable and also get feedback on your work.
  8. Leave Enough Time for Edits. Even though getting words on the page can be the hardest part, editing can take an even greater amount of time.
    1. RECOMMENDATION: Make sure that you start writing early enough that you can take a week or even a few days, to sleep on your words to make sure that you’re saying everything you need to say.
  9. TAKE BREAKS. Circling back to Step 1, remember this is a marathon, not a sprint. You need to conserve your energy, not blow it all at once.
    1. RECOMMENDATION: Watch Netflix. Go to the gym. Take a walk. Play with an animal. Chat with your friends about something other than what you’re working on. If you’re close to family, visit with your family– if not, maybe FaceTime them.

The most important thing to remember is that this too shall pass. Do your very best but take care of yourself in the process. As long as your priorities are straight, everything will be just fine.