Tag Archives: writing

Fade to Black: Take 2, Food for Art

No, y’all, I have not started grad school yet. But I’m still a Black Girl and they gave me a column, so…read on!

I’ve come to realize that my artistic practice is HEAVILY dependent on reading. I like to think my writing style is similar to improvisational jazz or freestyle rap—words and images sort of just flow out of me with no rhyme or reason…until all of a sudden they do. If you know music, you know improv and freestyle take skill. You don’t just start off spitting ten minutes of off the dome lyrics like Black Thought. That takes mad skill. Yes, you’ve gotta practice. But you’ve also got to consume a lot of ideas and cadences in order to have enough “stuff” inside of you to regurgitate in an innovative way. Let’s call it artistic vomit (or maybe not…that was kinda gross). The same goes for me. I hit my dry spells and notice distinct differences in my work when I’m not reading or taking African-American Studies classes. When I feed myself intellectually, my art makes connections that my brain doesn’t realize until 2 weeks into editing or rehearsing. Since I figured that might be a good place to be before beginning my NYU journey; ladies and gentlemen, I present to you my [SPOILER FREE!] summer reading list:

Citizen // Claudia Rankine

I told myself that I was going to take a writing break this summer (to rest up before grad school/the rest of my life). If you know me, you know that I pretty much suck at resting because I can’t keep my brain still. This summer, you can thank Citizen for my accidental creative frenzy. I had this beautiful moment where I was sitting on the porch, looking at an orange Kansas sky, just reading because I finally had time. Suddenly, I was taking notes and pausing to imagine; and before I knew it, I was at my laptop typing up ideas for new projects. I felt free. That, my friends, is the mark of a good read in my book (Ha. Ha. see what I did there?). Citizen is essentially a long form poem. Its nonlinear structure uses lyricism, narrative, and imagery to create a collage about what personhood means for Black bodies in America. Because this is how my brain works, I can’t help but compare it to Kahlil Joseph’s short films or Kendrick Lamar’s albums. It’s a hyper-visceral, non-linear reading experience. Rankin’s poetic chops are un-freaking-deniable, but let us not forget how fine-tuned her critical analysis skills are, too. My favorite chapter was on the Queen of Everything Magical and Black, Her Royal Highness Serena “Slay Me With A Racket” Williams. It’s not a long book, but will absolutely go down as one of the most important contemporary texts I’ve read thus far.

Swing Time // Zadie Smith

This novel tells the story of two London dancers: an unnamed biracial Jamaican and her friend Tracey. While one of them reluctantly takes a transatlantic journey, the other follows her dreams of stardom.  When I first read the back cover in the 57th Street Bookstore in Chicago, “Black,” “dance,” and “bodies” were enough to catch my attention. I’d heard really great things about Smith’s White Teeth, so I was pretty excited to start my summer reading with Swing Time. I’ve gotta say, though, I was kind of disappointed. It began with some very nostalgic moments that reminded me of my childhood as a little Black girl in ballet class, and tackled issues of celebrity and colonialism.  While there were some really lovely, vivid moments in the text, I kept waiting for the whole story to come together, you know? I kept turning pages and reading sentences thinking “okay, THIS is why she chose to tell this story; THIS is going to make these 300 pages worth my time.” That moment never came. It’s not that the story was confusing—I think Smith did a great job of articulating the mundane in enlightening ways; I just never found the “why”. Why now, why these characters, why this structure? There was so much bubbling under the surface, I just needed a single sentence, or even a single word that would make this experience satisfying. I wanted this novel to dance in the same way that its characters do, and while there are sparks of that, I didn’t feel Zadie Smith’s soul.

Eloquent Rage // Brittney Cooper

Cooper begins by telling the story of her feminist awakening, and goes on to explain the ways in which this new lens has informed every crevice of her life. This book is smart. Cooper is smart. But this book isn’t academic in the traditional sense. Yes, she is absolutely making well researched and thorough arguments…but it feels like you’re hearing all of this from your “woke” auntie instead of your professor. It’s mad real. While I couldn’t agree with all of Cooper’s arguments, I understand why this book is important and enlightening. What I found really successful was her ability to expound upon the struggles that I feel every. single. day. as a Black girl, and validate them with academic prowess. Her analysis was broad and thorough—she cited everything from Beyonce, to scripture, to Michelle Obama, to DuBois. I vibe with this because she takes the many things that she’s been feeding her Black Girl Mind with and uses them to make sense of and condemn violence that I’ve come to see as normal—being at the bottom of the dating totem pole and being the token Black girl, for example. If nothing else, Eloquent Rage has given me new awareness of what it means to navigate the world with my Black Girl body. Chapters of this text, particularly the ones about police brutality, Michelle Obama, and Cooper’s relationship to white feminism, also informed my own work this summer. Oh, did I mention how I LOVE the way she capitalizes Black Girl every single time? Yeah, that’s about to be a thing in every script I write from here on out.

Long Division // Keise Laymon

During my last semester of undergrad I wanted—more than anything in this entire world—to take a class called The Black Voice, with UVA’s new hip-hop professor A.D. Carson. I signed up and went to the first class. Unfortunately for this artist, I had to drop the class because I was shooting two films and putting up a play. But I kept all of the books and am determined to get through the entire syllabus. Long Division was first up and I’ve gotta say… It’s wonderful. And I mean that literally—filled with wonder. Laymon is somehow able to lead us through a story that simultaneously feels deeply familiar and otherworldly. It’s one of those novels where I can’t say much without giving it away (yes, it’s one of those!). But what you should know is that it follows a teenager in Mississippi as he discovers the power of his own voice—the power of words. Maybe we can call this book science-fiction, but it feels too…real to be put in that category. Maybe afrofuturism? Or maybe just intensely imaginative. I think my favorite thing about this book is the descriptive language. Perhaps there are some TMI moments, but through the voice of our protagonist, City, Laymon lyrically articulates the mind of a really smart, but really suppressed, rural teenage boy. I found myself wanting to enter that world time and time again.

Telepathologies // Cortney Lamar Charleston 

I picked up this book while I was in Chicago shooting my Emmett Till film; an eerie and beautifully appropriate scenario. Telepathologies is a collection of poetry that explores what it means to walk in fear and danger as a Black person in America. You know when you’ve been listening to a song and for the first time hear a lyric in a different way. You rewind and you say to yourself (or, in my case, very loudly) “BARZZZ.” That was pretty much my entire experience in reading these poems.

I read, watch, and write a lot of stuff about death (…maybe we should unpack that)—it’s been my way of mourning and trying to make sense of lost Black life. But these poems felt fresh. They felt raw. They felt delicate. They felt intentional. As I read, there were so many moments when I thought I’d figured out Charleston’s style and mode of thinking, but then he’d take me for a turn and I’d have to stop, breathe, and ponder. I’d come out of my trance with a billion questions, yet I’d still just want to sit and keep rereading the same line that made me stop in the first place. A new perspective on the familiar. That is what I need from a poet; that is what I desperately come to the art form searching for, and Charleston delivered. I recently found his twitter (after realizing that there’s no “u” in his first name)…so he can look forward to tweets about how badly I want to make his poems into films.

There you have it! I didn’t meet all of my reading goals this summer, but I have We Were Eight Years In Power// Coates and Meridian// Walker in my camera bag, and lots of train rides from theatre conferences to film festivals. I’ve got a stack of books ready to ship to my new place in New York, five more that I found at this delightful outdoor used bookstore in Connecticut (check out Book Barn, y’all!), and at least two years worth of subway rides in my future. Needless to say, I’ve got plenty of artistic fuel ready to take me through this next phase.

P.S. If I had to make a playlist with all of these books in mind:

Swing Time—Chameleon x Leah Smith

Citizen—Rollcall For Those Absent x Ambrose Akinmusire

Eloquent Rage—Blk Girl Soldier x Jamila Woods

Long Division—Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik x OutKast

Telepathologies—FEAR. x Kendrick Lamar

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.”

5 Tips and Tricks for Planning and Executing a Research Trip

As I type this, I am on my way back home from a four day long research trip to the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in New York City. (Really, it was only two days because I spent most of days 1 and 4 sitting on a train.) I’ve had the entire train ride to think about my trip and I decided that I wanted discuss how to plan and execute a successful research trip by reviewing what went really wrong and what went so very right. So here are a few steps (which are not necessarily in order) to a good research trip:

Step 1: Decide on a research topic.

My topic (which I won’t discuss in detail because I am trying my hardest not to scoop myself) sort of fell into my lap– a classmate sent me an article about an African American Black Panther comic book artist whose granddaughter lives in Williamsburg– and everything sort of snowballed from there into a huge project that I’ve been working on ever since.

Step 2: Figure out where your sources are.

I found out that some of the artist’s materials could be found at the Schomburg Center in Harlem. Before I had even really decided to make this trip, I started imagining how I could get my hands on those documents. Once you start fantasizing about materials, you know you’re working on the right project.

Step 3: Make the decision to go.

I know this sounds obvious but I had to actively make up my mind to go on this research trip and decide that I would do whatever I had to do to see those materials, even if it meant doing a solo trip.

Step 4: Apply for funds.

I applied for funding through my program. PROTIP: If you think one source may not be able to cover all the costs of your trip, apply for funding from more than one outlet. Actually, just do it anyway.

Applying for the funding was the easy part: I budgeted how much it would cost for a round-trip train ticket, a metro pass, food and a room. ROOKIE MISTAKE: I did not include in my budget costs for reproductions. PROTIP: Always budget for reproductions. At the Schomburg, it was .25 cents per 8 x 11 page, but considering the nature of the documents I was looking at it, it would have been impossible to get enough money for all the reproductions I wanted anyway.

I anticipated that the whole trip would cost me $800. From the one source I applied to, I got $300. Fortunately, I had money from my fellowship that I had yet to use so I had a cushion. But had that not been the case, I would have very seriously reconsidered making the trip.

PROTIP: Be on the lookout for pockets of funding: apply through your program or department, apply through the university, leadership initiatives, through your graduate student association (just to name a few potential avenues.)

Step 5: Plan your trip!

This part includes the usual business: like booking a hotel room and securing your train ticket. For a research trip, however, you also need to plan your time in the archive, which means reaching out to the library or center where you’re going ahead of time to make an appointment. If you don’t know what materials you want to look out, reach out to a librarian for help looking for documents. If you do know what you want to see, compile a list and figure out what the appropriate avenue is for securing an appointment. At some places (like the VCU comic archive) they may prefer an e-mail, and at others (like the Schomburg) they may have an online form for you to fill out. In either case, make sure to include the location of the materials you would like to see, whether it’s a box number or a call number. If you don’t know, ask.

PROTIP: Librarians are amazing, usually very kind and always very knowledgeable.

PROTIP: Make sure to ask ahead of time if you can take photographs of the collections you want to see. I couldn’t, which sucked, but it also meant I didn’t have to lug my camera around.

Step 5a: Plan your (fun) trip!

Research trips are fantastic ways to explore parts of the world that you haven’t been to yet. Make sure to get your work done but, if you’re going to a place like NYC, always budget some time to do some fun things in the city too! My cousin and I spent afternoons in Central Park, visited the Met and caught up with some of my college friends.

Step 6: Go on your trip!

My trip was such a great experience. A family friend met us at the Amtrak station and took us back to it at the end of the trip, I saw two of my good friends from UVA, my cousin and I explored a little, ate some good food, and most importantly, I did a lot of good research. Even though I wasn’t able to take pictures, I did take about 9 single spaced pages of notes, from which I am planning on writing either a journal article or a conference paper.

Bonus: Find a travel buddy. (Optional)

If you, like me, find traveling alone daunting, see if you can find someone that would be down for the ride. Since I already had to book a hotel room, I offered my cousin the extra bed. All she had to do was pay her way. Having a buddy to pal around New York with was supremely fun.

After the trip…

After you’ve rested up from your adventure, spend some time looking through your notes from your visit. Write up more about your thoughts while on the materials while they’re fresh in your mind. Write a rough draft of something, a blog post, an outline, anything, but just write something so that you can refer to while writing up a more formal document.

Currently, I’m thinking about using the materials that I explored for the last few days to expand on a paper that I wrote last semester for my Histories of Race course and write an abstract for a conference or two. (I’m always happy to write a post about creating a successful conference abstract. Leave me a comment if you’d read that.)

I hope these tips and tricks help you plan your next research trip. Happy researching!