I did have an answer but didn't feel that the class environment was particularly welcoming to my opinion, so I saved my reflections for the people whose opinions I have come to value most in my graduate experience: the Black female scholars and friends whose thoughtful reflections always articulate the kind of complex analysis I am looking for.
A few days later, after a different but similarly tense class, I walked home with some of these girlfriends, and we decided to get some food together to try to replenish our bodies and spirits after what had been a particularly draining class session. Across our classes, we were struggling with some of the coursework, and I was struck by how three Black women who are basically nerds could feel so demoralized by the project of reading. It seemed immediately relevant to ask: "why do you read?"
Slowly at first, and then with greater energy, one of my friends spoke at length about her love for reading, for books, for stories. She loves literature, she loves escaping, creativity and creation. She loves words. I just listened, falling in love with reading all over again as she spoke. It was as though I could see her heart growing warm, heating up with a special passion as she spoke about this particular love, and, seeing this passion, I was mesmerized.
As she finished--I lost track of how long she spoke--and my other friend shared her story, I thought of how quickly my professor had dismissed me when he initially asked the question. He assumed that I had never thought about why I read, and yet here we were, three young Black women getting excitedly worked up over this very question. Indeed, after spending three hours in a seminar that left us unsure of ourselves as scholars, revisiting this simple question refreshed our memory.
I was so inspired that I dreamed of starting a digital project, recording people of all ages responding to the question, highlighting in particular the responses of Black folks, letting the magic and love in their eyes pass on the same energy and beauty that comforted me and passed that warmth from my friend's heart to my own. I've interviewed a few people since then.
I share this question and this story because a few things happened for me in this process.
- My professor asked a question he didn't want to help me answer, and I realized quickly that not every classroom or group I am a part of is really a "community." It has been important for me to identify the groups that really are my community in graduate school, to nurture those communities, and to allow myself to be nurtured by them. For the rest, I feel free to think of them as mutually exploitative relationships, where I get what I need, as do they, and I do my best not to offer them anything more than what I have to in order to get what I need.
- In the academy, we tend to focus on "complex" questions, where the more syllables a word has, the better. These questions often require that we refer to theory to respond. I don't think these are the most useful questions. Questions like "why do you read?" or "What does it feel like to be free?" are equally important. If you want, you can use theory to answer these questions. But there are so many questions percolating through the academy that have a lot of syllables and no substance. I prefer substance over syllables.
- I don't know if we really take enough time to ask each other questions and then really listen. For me, it was so exciting to just listen to people share their stories about reading. In some ways, each person's story was a lens on their life story, and it was beautiful.
- Many people love to read. And many people love many things. Research questions and news/media often have a particular and narrow lens that produces kind of predictable narratives. I would enjoy seeing broader questions that let subjects--especially Black folks--really tell stories.
Historically, Black folks in the United States have always pursued literacy, sometimes at great risk. And historically, U.S. institutions, particularly the formal schooling system, have failed in facilitating those efforts. Nonetheless, I think many Black folks still want to read, do read, and, like me, love to read. So why? Maybe my professor isn't interested, but I am. I think if we continue to pursue the questions that are of interest to us, regardless of whether the academy is interested, we can sustain that warmth that passed between my friend and me, passing it throughout our communities, and learn important things about Black histories and futures.