transitions

New adventures. New spaces. New directions for the blog.

I’ve been thinking over what it is that I want from this blog. I’ve had weird fantasies about what this blog could do for me, and in a way I felt like I was guiding it to do one specific thing, when in reality I need it be multipurpose. This is, in many ways, a public diary, and that’s fine, but it wasn’t always this way. My earlier posts were often focused on a particular political topic, like representation, otherness, and marginalization, but when I went to Senegal in the Spring of 2016, I began writing more confessional pieces, and that scared a lot of people. I find that it’s a little strange to read information about a person which stems from a part of their life you had never seen or experienced before. The gullies and valleys of our minds, those sun-starved places that we prefer to keep hidden, are often the greatest wells of inspiration. As someone who has been in many ways forced to be introspective, I have to consider these sites, the depressive ridges, the elephant graveyards, to be worthy sites of exploration in the mental cartography of “self-discovery.”

This blog has been a roadmap for that process, insofar that it forces me to 1) process my thoughts and, more difficulty, my emotions 2) distill them into meaningful, human language 3) adulterate that information for general consumption. Even if it has changed form, I don’t necessarily feel bad about those changes. For one, I’ve been having this weird issue of credibility lately. I feel as if I know only a brief overview of what I’m studying, and have only recently become conscious of larger systems at play. Throughout this blog I have been talking about these systems, and with each post I am able to better see the inner workings and the interconnections, but still I feel somewhat weirded out about the idea of sharing my thoughts on these cultural and political issues considering my mere 21 years of experience and the readings I skimmed for a course. Hopefully that fades, but that is one of the reasons I decided to stop writing about these issues.

Continue reading “transitions”

winter blues

It’s taken me eight semesters of college for me to realize that I don’t like the spring semester. My emotions are all over the place because of my seasonal affective disorder, and I have a hard time being focused. I described to my friend today that fall semester is usually imbued with this excitement, and charged by the prospect of new beginnings. New friends, new classes, new experiences, new adventures. Yet, the spring is more or less biding time – waiting things out until the weather gets warmer, or until I have concrete summer plans. I am less inclined to make new friends, and feel almost ambivalent about maintaining the relationships I’ve built. I have these light therapy lamps (they’re not; they’re LED lamps which I was told “are just like light therapy”), and I sit under them often, but it doesn’t help much.

Time for some updates.

I have not been writing as much I had hoped. Lol, New Year’s Resolutions. I wish I could tap into that fount of creative energy from junior fall, when I first started this blog, and posted something every other week. It’s not necessarily because I have a lot going on right now. This semester, as I said, has been a little odd emotionally, but it is what it is. Right now, I’m fine, which is why I am writing to you all, and not to myself, as I had done last week. The manuscript project(s) I’ve been working on have been put to the side, although I do occasionally glance over it/them when I have the time. I have been rereading old work in between studying and writing my thesis, which is productive, and my ability to read without trying to change everything has gotten much better. Nevertheless, I feel creatively stifled right now, and I’m not sure why. I have all these cool ideas for blog posts, like this one I’ve been mulling around for a year now on race as a visual culture, or other posts which would be a little less monumental like a piece about Marxism / Marxist cultural studies, a piece about cultural ideology, and more posts about doing research & being a student, but I haven’t sat down and said “Let’s write this thing.” Hopefully in the coming weeks, when I am not so busy working on my thesis, I’ll be able to focus more on this, but that’s what I was hoping for for this semester, since I was done with grad school apps. Hm, I’m sure the spark will come back.

Continue reading “winter blues”

idle

In “threshold” I talked a bit about this issue with “inhabiting the now” that I’ve been having. I didn’t talk enough about it, so I’m writing this addendum to go into greater detail about what I’ve been feeling over the past three weeks at home.

1

For one, being home is annoying. I have a very distinct rhythm at school because I have the illusion of autonomy to corroborate that rhythm. I can move freely from my room to class to the dining hall to the gym without having to check-in with anyone or state that this is where I’m going. I can perfectly avoid human contact on days when I don’t want to be talked to or seen, and can surround myself with people on the few nights every full moon when I want to be inundated with the presence, opinions, voices of others. At home, I am in a perpetual state of in-betweenness. I have to interact with my parents, even when I don’t want to talk to anyone, and the idea of me not wanting to talk to them, or avoiding them, raises suspicions in ways which reflect more or less their perceptions of me than my own reality. This has been an issue my entire life – having constantly to maintain an image of myself in front of others which reflects their own self-interests and not my own. And that’s not at all to say that I don’t do this; I, however, acknowledge that I have constructed an image of you, a vehicle which coaches our engagement, and that I leave this image as fluid as possible so as to allow you to demonstrate your character as opposed to allowing me to corroborate that image. My family doesn’t do this, and I’m not sure they know how to do it. It’s hard, and I’m not very good at it myself.

While the past semester was stressful, I thrive in stressful, high-octane situations. How else could you explain me projecting myself into these situations, in spite the admonishment of my friends? I was told by so many people not to apply to grad school as a senior, not to be president of my black student union, not to have two (really three) jobs on campus, and each time I ignored them because naturally I know better than anyone else (duh.) Nonetheless, I did this because I knew that that more I had on my plate, the more precise and productive I could be. If I piled everything on, I knew that I would work as efficiently as possible because there’s always something else to do. Now there’s not. This break has been stressful because I haven’t had anything to stress me out.

Continue reading “idle”

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.

Continue reading “threshold”

(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.

Continue reading “quartered”

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”