threshold

I finished my senior fall about two weeks ago. It was by far the hardest semester I’ve experienced at Swarthmore, but at the same time, it has come the most easily to me. I’ve gone through most obstacles in a sort of half-sleep – I know the ins and outs of Swat like the back of my hand, so much so that I feel a heightened and therefore dangerous sense of importance. So much has happened in the past three months and I’m not sure where to start, so I guess I’ll just list it all out.

  • I have grown far more emotionally independent since the beginning of the semester. Unlike my experiences in “quartered,” I have spent the end of this semester almost exclusively alone and have been quite fine with my self-sequestration. The things that I used to do to pass the time – playing video games, watching Netflix – no longer seem to capture my attention, but I’ve been reading NW in my downtime and I’m quite enjoying it. (Edit: I finished NW, it was good. Smith writes a lot like I do, which makes me feel more assured in my work.) I’ve been going to counseling at Worth all semester, as well as avoiding situations which frequently put me in unsavory positions. Of course, it’s impossible to avoid the “unsavory,” but I find that I am filled with far less regret and anguish than previous semesters. Part of it has been avoiding social situations where I feel “conscripted” to do certain things (e.g. get drunk, fraternize, be an approachable and sociable human), and finding solace in the fact that I am no less of a good person for not enjoying these situations. I occasionally go out to PubNite or a party and get a little too drunk (which means a 4/10, honestly), but I find that I don’t feel compelled to seek out certain kinds of social approval from others, therefore lessening the persistent tug-of-war between individual and society. I am learning to accept myself in small pieces, learning to find joy in my weirdness and to look less at myself in disdain. It’s a lengthy process, with ups and downs, but I’m getting there, at my own pace. I don’t need to know how quickly you’re getting to where you need to be. It has no influence on my own rhythm, shouldn’t.
  • Do you ever say something over and over and over again until it loses its meaning and sounds kind of like gobbledygook? “He’s not cheating on me;” “She’s perfect for me;” “I am a good person.” That’s essentially how I feel about writing grad school applications. I’ve been applying to grad school this entire semester, and I’m so glad to say I’m done. The entire process has just been so clandestine and obscure, like bumping around in a giant room lit up only by a candle. I had this constant feeling of not knowing what I was doing, of being somehow misguided, but I would look around and see that I appeared to have a lot more of a sense of my bearings than anyone else. Of course, that could just be the blinders.

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learning to edit

Editing is difficult. It requires a sense of introspection and analysis which forces us, in many ways, to lay ourselves bare and open to the scrutiny of our biggest and most hurtful critics; ourselves. When I was younger, I often didn’t edit my papers out of laziness. After having written an entire paper in one sitting, having ideas race through my head for hours, the last thing that I’d want to do is sit down and reread what I’d just written. And I’m still the same way, even today. Although I don’t write in one sitting (unless it’s a short composition), I do find that I allow my work to “sit” for a while in order to allow my ideas to ferment. This is not supposed to be literal; my words aren’t literally cooking in the Word document, but my ideas are growing slowly in the stew of my thoughts. As I go about my day or do my readings for the next class session, I keep my argument at the front of my mind, looking for information or approaches I can use to make my opinions more effective. Then, after a few days, I print my work out, and start the editing process.

As I’m getting older, and beginning to see school less as the completion of arbitrary tasks and more as the formulation of a certain way of thinking and interacting in academic and public space, I’m realizing that there is a lot of information which students are expected to acquire by themselves. Whether this be how to write a cover letter or how to find books in a library, much of the information which a student needs remains relatively obscure and difficult to locate. Most students resort to googling these bits of info due to a lack of institutional instruction. What I want to do here is offer a way of approaching the editing process in a way which proves productive towards crafting a solid argument or comprehensive analysis. The key to editing, as I mentioned earlier, is a sense of introspection which may come easily to some and quite arduously for others. Nonetheless, it is this level of reflection which separates a subpar work from something worthy of publication.

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Summer Research Programs for Students of Color

Go getchu some research experience, fam.

The past few weeks I’ve been thinking about what I can do to help my fellow students of color out. The world of academic is purposefully clandestine, and I find that I often don’t have a lot of guidance. While I rely on my professors and friends for assistance, I still had to do a lot on my own, like finding and applying to programs, writing proposals and figuring out how to market myself as a student/researcher/scholar/etc. I will eventually write a piece on writing these kinds of proposals (once I feel confident enough that I’ve mastered the process my damn self), but by the time that comes, most of these deadlines will have passed so it won’t be as directly useful. Nonetheless, stay on the lookout for things like that.

Last summer I spent about eight weeks at the University of North Carolina as a fellow of the Moore Undergraduate Research Apprentice Program (MURAP). I’ve talked about the program in bits and pieces, and while I do have some initial *regrets,* which I’ll discuss later on, the program did do its job of shaping me into, in my opinion, a competitive candidate for graduate admissions. The program offered *free* GRE prep, a generous stipend, the opportunity to engage with other scholars in my field, yada-yada. But the greatest part was the opportunity to do engaging independent research. While I had just come from conducting a research project when I was abroad in Senegal, I still found that my time at MURAP was far more intensive and my research far more critical than what I had done abroad. Perhaps it was the competitive atmosphere, everyone attempting to one-up everyone else, show off their deftness of theory and language, or maybe it was because our research was closely being groomed and monitored by scholars in our fields of interests. I’m not really sure. The paper I wrote for MURAP sparked my interest in literary theory and I am still working on it today, several months later.

Source: anu.edu.au
Source: anu.edu.au

This blog post is going to offer you an outline of some summer research programs available to undergraduate students of color interested in pursuing graduate education in a variety of disciplines, most notably the Social Sciences and the Humanities. Although I am a Mellon Mays fellow, many of these programs are not MMUF-specific and are open to students from around the country. I recommend that your read and fully grasp the eligibility and program requirements before applying, although I will attempt to summarize what the linked website say in this post. This is by no means a definitive list, but just a way to get your feet wet in this process.

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on music videos

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Video: “Stonemilker,” Bjork, Vulnicura

A woman in a blue jumpsuit walks into a slowly illuminating dance studio carrying a rather large, clearly anachronistic boom box. As she puts the tape on play, she takes off her jumpsuit to reveal a pink leotard and the words time goes by so slowly play over and over as a crowd of various, dancing minorities flash on the screen, interspersed between an aged Madonna’s warm-up routine. The minorities, drawn from all of the locales where they are most readily found – for the Blacks, standing idly on the street, for the Asians, cooped up in an ethnic restaurant – go about their day, bumping this sick Madonna track,        shucking and jiving in public while Madonna struggles to keep up in the security of her dated dance studio. The words Every little thing that you say or do, I’m hung up, hung up on you appear on the foreground of the song, repeated over and over. The mind almost unhears it, all of the body’s energy being poured into the eyes which hurriedly piece meaning from the strange music video.

I don’t necessarily like Madonna’s 2005 hit “Hung Up.” I especially don’t like the music video for its use

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Video: “Hung Up,” Madonna, Confessions on a Dancefloor

of people of color as simple props, thrown into the bunch not as a celebration of their individualism, but as a way of showing off the focus of the video: a rich, white, and bland Madonna. Nonetheless, there is little that distinguishes the minorities in “Hung Up” from those you find in Avril Lavigne’s “Hello Kitty” or Gwen Stefani’s “What You Waiting For?” Their existence is simple – to foil the white woman in the center of view, to draw attention to the sharpness of her costume design, the grace of her character, etc.

What fascinates me about “Hung Up”’s music video is the way that it seems to have little to do with the lyrics of the song. The song’s lyrics seem to tell the story of a woman growing tired of unrequited love from her lover. The constant refrain of the chorus, matched with the up-tempo melody, make the song ironically upbeat and optimistic, but it nonetheless is a story of love between two individuals. The music video does not reflect this at all. There isn’t really a love interest for Madonna, and there is no narrative to establish a connection between events, other than the very loose one which draws all the characters together at the end, for some reason, to play Dance Dance Revolution. The images we see in “Hung Up” carry with them intrinsic meaning individually, but together, the music video itself seems to make little sense. Continue reading “on music videos”

five more language acquisition tips

It’s been about a year and a half since I took my last French language class. Since crossing over to literature courses, I’ve had some minor anxieties about losing my grasp of grammar and conventions. While I may be familiarizing myself more with the deployment and use of language in its native format (in literature, in print media, in film, in seminar conversations), I’ve nonetheless had to keep at my basic grammar skills in addition to my studies.

I wrote a post a year ago about tips for learning languages, and I’m going to add on to this list today with some tips for maximizing your energy as a language learner.

  • Learn IPA: IPA, or the International Phonetic Alphabet, is a helpful tool for anyone interested in learning how a language functions phonetically. IPA is a universal system through which words can be transcribed and therefore pronounced through a set of phoneme representations in Latin (or Latin-like characters). Now, IPA is not necessarily intuitive at first; certain sounds are pretty analogous to their English equivalents, like /g/ in good or /s/ in s Others are not, like /dʒ/ in judge, are not. It will take some time to learn all of the steps and mechanisms of IPA, and for some languages it’s more complex than others. For instance, Mandarin, due to its tonal nature, has markers which tell you what the tone is (these are also present in pinyin). For French, IPA is helpful for distinguishing similarly sounding phonemes, like /u/ in joue /ʒu/ and jus /ʒy/. The vowels [ou] and [u], to the English speaker, look indistinguishable, given that [ou] and [u] in English are often the same sound, as in the words you and june. The phoneme /y/ however, rarely is used in English. IPA is even more helpful more helpful for learning English because it quite frankly doesn’t make much phonemic sense. English is a wildly irregular language in terms of its orthography, and IPA allows English learners to better gauge how certain words are pronounced. Unlike orthographic systems, IPA is universal; it does not change depending on language or even dialect. The /u/ phoneme which appears in Azeri is the same /u/ that appears in Icelandic.

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the abuse of feeling

On the inherent misogyny and racism in heterosexual internet porn consumption

 

One of the most interesting conversations I come across in academic circles is the thin line between the erotic and the pornographic. Whether we’re talking about Audre Lorde’s seminal essay “Uses of the Erotic” or we’re analyzing the often over-looked pear-tree/masturbation scene in Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God or the scandalous and somewhat explicit carriage sex scene in Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, the relationship between the explicit utilization of human sexuality for artistic expression and the commodification of the human body for sexual exploration lies on the frontier of a greater conversation of the relationship between consumers and the worlds which their texts seek to reproduce. Issues of sex, having become only in the 20th century somewhat normalized to the point of being even considered for discussion in academic circles, still remain somewhat relegated to intellectual niches because of the ways we are socialized to shrink from such conversations. We talk vividly about our sexual encounters with one another in private, but in the professionalized space of the seminar room, conversations on the implications of sexuality and sexual expression are often considered inappropriate.

Yet, there is so much to be discussed in this area, in particular in the area of media and cultural studies. Through the globalizing media of television, film and the Internet, sexuality is becoming more and more a part of our everyday lives, our happenstance conversations in passing, the ways by which we judge our character and self-worth as individuals. We are becoming increasingly cognizant of the impacts of sexual violence and harassment, are having more and more conversations on the implications of sexual advances on those who do not or cannot offer their consent, and are all around growing towards dispelling a general theme at the heart of the heterosexual experience – the male domination of women.

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“not everything that isn’t true is a lie”

Digital memory, masculinity and control in Black Mirror S1E3: “The Entire History of You”

A few days I started rewatching what is, in my opinion, one of the best, most thought-provoking shows on television, Black Mirror. You can catch all seven episodes of it on Netflix, and I really do recommend it if you’re a fan of shows like the Twilight Zone or Twin Peaks. The show uses technological advances to explain the darker parts of the human condition and does a great job of asking those huge questions about selfhood, memory, love and human sympathy. Wanting to sort of create new content for this blog and speak less about the sort of heady, large, ideological topics which I find in my studies, I decided to analyze one of my favorite episodes.

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(app) rehension

I started to entertain the idea of becoming a professor when I was in high school. I suppose it was a loosely figured dream at that time, just a vague “this could be cool” fantasy. I knew that I liked books once I spent a summer at Cornell after having taken a particularly enlightening English class. The Cornell program was only for three weeks, and I had no idea that I had actually signed up to take a specifically German literature class (in translation, of course), but it was at this point, in the beginning of both my intellectual and racial “awakening,” that I began to focus my attention on the fact that I was not like everyone else. When I read certain texts, I felt a deeper connection with them than did my classmates, and the depths of this connection demanded that I advocate for these works in ways that I did not understand in high school. I felt hailed – interpellated – to speak on behalf of these works, not because of their arbitrary literary merit, but because they represented the lives of the people with whom I shared a mutual, deprived condition. In works like A Lesson Before Dying and Their Eyes Were Watching God and, to a certain degree, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, I began to see myself, my image – the image of a collective other – etched into a description, into a mannerism, into stylized dialogue, and therefore felt the need to defend them to a class of students who nonetheless found these works obscure and difficult to understand, who could not see beyond a veil that I had to live within. It was at this point that I began to understand the vastness of our constellation of identities; the students in my classes were an array of bodies organized within according proximity to several political points, and while they all seemed to orbit the same bodies, some a little further out, some dangerously close to their parent star, I was somewhere else, having to scream across the void to make my experience known.

I have been trying to find the words to write this blog post for several months. It is bizarre and a little uncomfortable to write, mostly because it requires that I be frank with the reality of the world in which I am attempting to carve out a home. I have never been afraid of being a token, as I’ve already discussed in other posts. There is, of course, this pressure in occupying the token position, of being the other. The microaggressive comments which are lanced at you, the ways that your presence is hardly acknowledged, but your absence is always apparent; these are the realities of the persons of color in each history class, the transwoman in the woman’s studies class, the Native student in the American Studies course; the anomalies struggling to figure themselves into an epistemology, into an intellectual tradition. The understanding that you are in fact ahistorical – that you must fight to plug yourself into the collective chronology. This is the sort of pressure which exists for the others in school. They must endure not necessarily a bombardment of expletives designed to immediately wound, but death by one million small lacerations, a killing which you do not realize until you are too weak to move. Not everyone feels this way. Some people are okay with their tokenhood, see themselves, through the eyes of the dominant order, as images of progress. They look themselves in the mirror of identity and say “My cotton-picking, rubber-tapping, cocoa-farming, porch-sweeping, orange-yanking, tea-plucking, child-rearing, rice-winnowing, swamp-draining, cane-chopping  ancestors would be so proud to see me among all these white folks, learning, being civilized.” And this is not wrong. Our ancestors are looking down on us with smiles on their faces because there has been some progress, because our lives are better than theirs were. But the burdens of tokenhood linger in the mind like a miasma; it sickens you, breaks you down, weakens your trauma immune system.

Part of applying to grad school has been looking for professors interested in the same research as me. In particular, I’m interested in postcolonial theory, which is, in a nutshell, making sense of “emancipation” as a historical truth and an ideological fallacy. A relatively sexy topic in literary and cultural studies, postcolonial studies allows the subaltern to understand their identities as produced by 18th and 19th century notions of personhood, citizenship and civilization. It centers the critical perspective on uncovering and examining their identities, although it still finds itself deeply rooted in a Western and therefore oppressive framework of thought. Nonetheless, this is what I want to do, at this point in my life. Whether that is subject to change is something for an older, wiser X to figure out. I bring this up because in looking for specialists in postcolonial thought, I’ve had to come to terms with a crushing reality in the discipline of comparative literature; there are very, very, very few Black people. And even fewer African-Americans. Now, I suppose that this doesn’t come as a surprise. Anyone aware of higher education will tell you that there is a dire dearth of minorities in the institution outside of a certain narrow set of niches; Chinese professors teaching Chinese language & literature, women teaching women’s studies, African-Americans teaching African-American studies, and all the intersections which occur at the intersections of disciplines (African-American women teaching Black feminist theory, for example). Comparative literature is not one of these niches. The study of comparative literature has its roots in European thought and it is still quite entrenched there. It is a way of understanding literature as a historical and sociological exchange of ideas across cultures, but these cultures are of course tightly figured around the latitudes of Western Europe. There are tens of comparatists comparing French and German cinema or Early Modern Spanish and Italian poetry or Old English and Norse legends, but when we bringing in “subaltern” literatures, the numbers grow thin. Where are the specialists in South East Asian and Melanesian literature? Where are the comparatists seeking to draw ties between Feudal Japan and Feudal Russia? Are these specialists destined to represent the communities who cherish these literatures? Is it possible to break free of one’s race and culture in academia, to become something other than the Asian Literature person in your department?

The answer seems to be no. There is a systemic issue at play. In the interpellation process through which token undergrads decide to become token graduate students, there seems to be a push to further the niche study of one’s identity, so as to better understand one’s self and one’s history as contributing to the interplay of the world. This is a valiant effort; without this process, we wouldn’t have any ethnic studies at all. But the process by which this happens is a problem, for it dictates subconsciously that these studies, and that these specialists, function to integrate a space which otherwise doesn’t give a shit about them or their histories. The notion that the token must make their space safe for their personal and intellectual development means that the institution shows no interest in doing so. The token carries with them an identity which the academic institution sees as a hostile *foreign* entity; its antibodies of ideology and history and objectivity are deployed so as to subdue this body, to place it in a niche in which it can be understood and studied from a distance. This is why ethnic studies, gender and sexuality studies, and area studies are considered niche. They have their box, they have their tools, but they exist in their own institutional category, separate from all else, that which in its very nature is designed to curate objectivity, to take into consideration all of that which is of relevance to the academic institution, on which academe is founded.

Going into grad school, I am somewhat apprehensive of being the only Black person in my cohort, and this is the first time that I have ever had such feelings. As of right now, I am the only Black man in both of my classes, and likely the only one in the comparative literature program at Swarthmore, and this barely bothers me at all. Yet, the prospect of becoming the “postcolonial studies” guy, or the “African literature” guy, or the “black studies” guy or the “theory of colonialism and otherness” guy is deeply troubling, for it signifies the process of being rendered into a niche, the likes of which may relegate my work both in grad school and beyond nonconsequential to my immediate colleagues. I can imagine being a professor at __________ College or University, having to speak up as one of my colleagues in the department makes a questionable remark, or better yet, being eyed nervously, being called upon to validate their opinions on a subject matter which their grad program at Yale or Harvard or Brown believed was niche and apocryphal and therefore perfunctory to their development as a scholar. While I have to struggle through Molière and read copious amounts of Bourdieu, you can get your comparative literature PhD without having ever picked up the works of Albert Memmi or Ngugi wa Thiong’o.

This is why I am against canons, although it is impossible to really put up a fight against an institutional process so large as is canonization. Even the authors I have given as examples of “non-canonical” in literary studies, are canonical in their own small, othered niches. Nonetheless, the idea that there is a chronology of thought, an epistemological history, starting with Plato and ending with Derrida, excluding all of but a few women and POC, the likes of which were only accepted into the intellectual pantheon in order to diversify X and Y syllabi, ignoring all the other others who have constantly called for inclusivity, for qualification, for acceptance, is a problem that is far larger than myself, as the little black kid with his copy of Aimé Césaire in hand. It is a disheartening problem, and I feel as if I am being called on by the mass of the unheard and unseen to integrate a space which is perhaps more hostile to my presence than any other.

But I am doing so for my ancestors, to conjure their spirits back into the history books, to ground lofty theories in a world of experience. Some people have the privilege to live their lives as abstract notions, but my ancestors didn’t and neither do I. I wrote before that I do not exist to reaffirm white comfort, for my existence alone makes some shrink in their seats. I ruin the false image in their minds with my presence at their seminar table, and every time I say “let’s think about this in more concrete terms” I make them come to terms with the fact that their theories have real world ramifications, the likes of which are further away than they can imagine, but impact people’s lives in ways they wouldn’t believe. I have accepted this, not because I believe in nominal notions of diversity, but because it is important that I learn from the ignorance of the past so as to continue to develop a more progressive and inclusive future. I am not doing this for the students belonging to the dominant orders in my programs, for the future scholars of comparative French and Spanish drama or Prussian and Flemish poetry – I’m doing this for my Senegalese host mother and for my own mother, to figure them into the ways that we think about literature, and the ways we think about knowledge.

And so I must enter a niche and make a prison a home.

Featured Art: Juan Fuentes, Luis de Las Flores

quartered

I’ve been having a hard time being by myself for a few months now. It started out as this sort of weird feeling, an uncharacteristic thirst for human contact.

I haven’t always been this way, either. I remember my junior fall (September – December 2015) as a time when I truly felt at peace being alone, in no one else’s company but my own. I had forced myself in ways to develop a decent rapport with my other selves, and in a way I had begun to embrace parts of my identity I had thoroughly but ineffectively tried to stow away. Nonetheless, as the semester drew to a close, and as my stomach began to knot up around itself, I started to have this sort of weird desire to be around people. It was I suppose when I was in Senegal when I began to become aware of it. Set adrift in a new country ruled by a foreign tongue, I began to find the presence of my American classmates oddly refreshing in contrast to the sensory bombardment all around me. I at first moaned about having to get up every morning at 7:45 in order to make it to school on time, my mind remembering in small the agonies of high school, but I found the subsequent eight hours I would spend at our house-cum-campus nice and comforting. Even if at times I was distant or removed from class, my mind elsewhere, I still found solace in the presence of other Americans, with whom I could speak freely without pre-thinking, without rehearsing a list of cultural and linguistic considerations.

I would not say that I clung to my friends in Dakar, but I would say that the amount of time I spent around them was markedly different from the amount of human contact I had at school the semester prior. I could go a couple of days without spending a large amount (more than a half an hour) with someone, and I was fine with it. I woke up alone, went to lunch alone, went to study alone, and went to bed alone. I had grown accustomed to this routine, and it had been beneficial for my mental health, to such an extent that I began to wonder if I really was this sort of reclusive hermit of a person, the kind who cringed at the touch of a familiar, who found nothing more loathsome than being in a room full of drunk people of their age.

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in limbo

trap doors that open / I spiral down

I’ve been trying to write a book since I was in high school. At first it was a novel, then it became a collection of short stories. Several scrapped chapbooks, an Amazon Prime novella and a failed attempt to serialize a narrative poem and I haven’t reached this goal. Currently I’m trying to put together a working selection of novellas that seem to represent a certain moment in my life. Regarding my writing, these novellas seem to represent an authorial peak in terms of narrative pathos and storytelling. Each narrator is complex and flawed, a raw yet heavily adulterated permutation of myself, and I look at their emotional honesty as a sort of testament to my own personal development. Nonetheless, every time I read over these works, taking them out of the “resting” period I afford all of my longer works before beginning the same self-deprecating editing process, I realize how much more I need to read, how much more I need to grow before I am ready.

Continue reading “in limbo”