Lol. So I’m officially done! with all of my applications. I was accepted to the Master’s programs in Quebec and got funding to do them from the Fulbright Commission but I declined my grant offer today. When I got the email notifying for the Fulbright, it was like the same thing that happened before with other acceptances; looking at my phone, saying “Oh, wow” and going back to whatever I was doing, thinking, in the absence of emotion, about why I am so unimpressed or unmoved. I’m tired, and I’ve been saying the same thing for months. I haven’t even told many people about the Fulbright because I haven’t really considered it a viable option. I wanted to write (an actually brief) blog post about it, just to sort of formally announce that I got (and have declined) my award.
So I wrote this blog post several weeks ago, and I for some reason never posted it, so I’m gonna post it now, but I’m going to add a short preface explaining where I am now. I also added some comments to clarify developments since this was written during my first wave of visits to Yale and Stanford (3/5 – 3/10) and my trip to Berkeley (3/17-3/20).
3/31 – I’m in Pittsburgh, presenting a chapter of my thesis which is just about finished. I have a bit of work to do, and my conclusion to finish, but my thesis is essentially all but done. I have also committed to going to Yale University, after about a month of fretting and second-guessing and listening to people tell me what to do and give me copious amounts of unsolicited advice. Of course, it didn’t help that like, two days after I committed to Yale and declined my offers elsewhere that Stanford sent me a big fat fellowship offer, but I’ve stayed steadfast, realizing that even with that fellowship in addition to my abnormally large stipend at Stanford, the price of living in Palo Alto is so high that I’d likely not have much money left at the end of the day, fellowship or not.
I am ready to be done with the semester. I’m so close, but I still have a huge mountain (Honors exams, lol) to get over before I’m clear. Then, I have a week of downtime before I start taking this Latin class at Yale.
I am sooooo tired, but excited. I want to sleep for a month straight and wake up and it’s Senior Week, a full day after my Honors exam. I wish I could just go on autopilot for the next few weeks, but I need to be present, need to attend this stupid swimming class in order to pass and graduate, need to finalize my summer plans, need to find an apartment, need to….
Anyways, here’s the now anachronistic and probably confusing blogpost that I wrote and just got around to published. I haven’t even changed much, because I know it was super-angsty, and I didn’t want to adulterate any of that raw emotion, since this blog is essentially the only space I give myself to really be emotional. Continue reading “yale-bound”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
I wasn’t going to post on the recent killings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. I still don’t want to post about it. Going through my Facebook feed today, I saw so many comments on the issue from my close friends and loved ones, all voicing my personal feelings on the issue. The videos, the tributes, the think-pieces were all a lot to digest. I found myself searching for the specks of levity in my feed – memes, cooking videos, anything to distract my mind from the traumas of collective mourning. There was a negative energy in the world today which was inescapable. People were quiet, reflective, fearful. Everyone seemed to ask themselves and one another in private, just above a whisper: when will it stop? How can we make it stop?
I enjoy watching documentaries because it offers all the information of a book without the labor of reading. Of course, reader, you may be saying “reading is not laborious” but for some people, like me when I was younger, reading was a source of stress. I struggled to read at the paces of my peers, which deterred me from reading altogether. Yet, I was inquisitive and sought to find information through other media, including documentaries. Considering my somewhat heavy course load at Swarthmore, I’ve been watching documentaries in order to augment my readings. In my spare time, instead of watching a tv show on Netflix — which I also do — I’ll put on a documentary which is relevant to my coursework and continue the learning process without straining myself by reading.
Below are five documentaries for students of Africana studies that I’ve watched through online platforms like California Newsreel, a site for which most colleges and universities hold a subscription.
1. Femmes Aux Yeux Ouverts (1994)
Director: Anne-Laure Folly
Femmes Aux Yeux Ouverts (Women with Open Eyes) is a Togolese documentary which discusses contemporary issues facing West African women. Topics include the traditional roles of African women and the construction of the masculine and feminine identities within Senegalese, Beninese, Burkinabé and Malian contexts. The film discusses, above all else, the issue of excision or female circumcision, the process of removing the “unpure” clitoris from young women, and its ramifications on the psychological development of West African women. The film is a must-watch for people interested in gender & sexuality in West Africa as well anyone seeking to study African society and culture.
The film can be watched through Films on Demand, a video streaming service which offers subscriptions to hundreds of colleges and universities.
2. Color Adjustment (1992)
Director: Marlon Riggs
Marlon Riggs is a titan African-American documentarist whose works cover an array of topics, from sexuality to Blacks in media. Color Adjustment highlights the presence of Black actors in television, progressing from the early representations of Black people by whites in radio and film and the consequent addition of Black actors for television adaptations, such as in Amos and Andy. It then progresses through shifting audiences and representations as television progressed into the 1960s, 70s and 80s, stopping at the Cosby Show, a show which sought, among many things, to dramatically address the representation of African-Americans in television. Color Adjustment is a must-watch for anyone studying the presence and representation of African-Americans in media, as well as the construction of racial identities.
Color Adjustment is also available through Films on Demand.
3. God Loves Uganda (2013)
Director: Roger Ross Williams
A more recent documentary, God Loves Uganda discusses the role that Christian evangelism has played in the cultural, legal and social development of Uganda. The relationship between (North) American evangelism and Uganda’s anti-homophobia laws is explored, along with the pervasive strain of Islamophobia at the heart of many Christian missionary agendas in Africa. Definitely a fascinating watch for anyone interested in gender, sexuality & legality in Africa, religion & African society and the role of Christian mission in African history.
The documentary is available on Netflix.
4. 3 1/2 Minutes, 10 Bullets (2015)
Director: Marc Silver
Covering the story of the murder of Jordan Davis, a seventeen year-old African-American high school student by Michael Dunn, a white man, 3 1/2 Minutes, 10 Bullets is a harrowing documentary which combines excellent storytelling with the misery of an ongoing, unresolved and nearby issue of violence against the Black body. The documentary was the impetus for two pieces on this blog, titled Armed & Dangerous, and opened by eyes to the ambiguities of stand-your-ground laws and the pervasive notion of Black criminality within the American conscience. I definitely recommend this film for anyone interested in African-Americans in the American justice system, racial violence, and cultural imaginations.
The documentary is available on HBO Go.
5. The Language You Cry In (1998)
Directors: Alvaro Toepke, Angel Serano
The Gullah are a unique group of African-Americans living on the Sea Islands of South Carolina and Georgia. Renowned for their sweetgrass basket-weaving and tradition of storytelling, the Gullah also are distinguished by their unique creole language. The presence of African retentions in the Gullah tradition were essential towards rewriting the popular narratives of “the Negro past” or the lack thereof. The Language You Cry In tells the story of a funeral dirge retained by Gullahs that was traced back to a tribe in Sierra Leone, effectively drawing a tangible connection between contemporary African-Americans and the African continent from which they hailed. The documentary is touching in its desire to undo accepted ideas of African-American culture as “ahistorical” and is imperative for students interested in studying African-American or Gullah history, African cultural retention and music & culture.
The documentary is available on Films on Demand.
I plan on watching more documentaries during my winter break, so I’ll probably add a follow-up to this post. Stay tuned!
My generation is angry.
We have a lot on our plates, and the true size of the mountain we must climb is heartbreaking. Perhaps what makes this obligation so exhausting is the perception of those around us that our conflict, our burden is but an amalgamation of non-issues. Coming from the outside and the inside, there is this notion which claims that our concerns aren’t significant and that we are fighting for nothing. In being told we have so little to worry about, what persists only grows in its immensity.
I had the opportunity of attending a demonstration to show Swarthmore’s solidarity with Black students at the University of Missouri. The past two weeks have made their Columbia, Missouri home into a hellhole as the secret racism which so many Americans bear surreptitiously and unknowingly exposed itself in social media, in terror-inducing comments and in gut-wrenching “expressions” of hatred. How poignant that this comes in the wake of tragic terrorist attacks in Paris, France and Beirut, Lebanon. White Americans are the first ones to decry the very brand of explicit fearmongering which has sustained this country for centuries when exercised by a different, browner people. I will not talk about Paris and Beirut, for those discussions deserve a far more intimate and detailed description of my feelings, the likes of which are evolving as the issue is further discussed. I will however talk about Mizzou, Yale and the incident which happened last week at Dartmouth.